Millions of people are going gluten-free. Gluten-free food products abound and many restaurants offer up gluten-free fare. Chelsea Clinton, Gwyneth Paltrow, Jennifer Anniston, and Elisabeth Hasselbeck are just a few of the celebrities who have chosen a gluten-free diet to lose weight and improve their health, popularizing this growing trend. According to market research, 15% to 25% of consumers want gluten-free foods. What was once considered an unfortunate diet restriction is now the preferred choice for a growing segment of the population.

Gluten sensitivity (GS) or gluten intolerance refers to the inability to digest gluten, a sticky protein in wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut and triticale grains. Oats may be contaminated with wheat/gluten during processing unless labeled gluten-free. Gliaden is the primary offending peptide in gluten which can set off an adverse immune response leading to numerous health problems. Wheat allergies may be triggered by other wheat components and result in a sudden histamine response such as swelling or difficulty breathing. Unlike allergies, gluten intolerance and its more severe form, celiac disease, can occur without apparent symptoms and go undetected for years.

Celiac disease is a serious form of gluten intolerance that manifests as an autoimmune disorder. In her book, “Recognizing Celiac Disease”, Cleo Libonati explains how in celiac, the undigested gluten particles irritate the intestinal lining causing a relaxing of the normally tight intercellular junctions that prevent large molecules from leaking through the lining. The gluten fragments slip between the junctions and become bound by the intestinal enzyme tissue transglutaminase to form a molecule that triggers the development of antibodies which then attack the altered gluten molecule within the lining. This causes inflammation and damage to the small finger-like projections in the small intestine called villi where absorption of nutrients takes place. With a damaged intestinal lining, digestive enzyme production is arrested, nutrients cannot be properly absorbed and utilized, and undigested food particles, pathogens and toxins penetrate through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream causing the immune system to go into overdrive. The continual flood of toxins in the system through the “leaky gut” stresses and compromises the function of all the organs and tissues. Disease and autoimmune disorders associated with any part of the body can result. As little as .1 gram of gluten (1/48 of a slice of bread) can set off an immune response.

Tests for celiac and non celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) typically include blood tests and stool samples to detect antibodies to gliaden, genetic testing, and biopsy of the small intestine for evidence of damage. However, tests may be inconclusive leading to missed diagnosis and continued suffering. Blood tests and, in some cases biopsies, are only valid if gluten has been ingested up until the time of testing. In the early stages of GS, gliaden antibodies may be confined to the intestines and not show up in the blood, and biopsy samples may miss the damaged area.

Regardless of the test results, it is only when gluten is eliminated from the diet and the body has a chance to repair and heal that health can improve. For this reason, many people who suspect that they have gluten intolerance adopt a gluten-free diet. NCGS may take from 6 months to a year to heal, while celiac may take longer. Libonati’s and Scott Adams’ are wonderful resources for those who would like to learn more about gluten sensitivity.

According to a study by the Mayo Clinic in July 2009, celiac disease is four times more common now than it was 50 years ago. Since 1974, the rate of reported celiac disease has doubled every 15 years and now occurs in 1 out of 100 people worldwide, with an estimated 3 million cases in the U.S. alone. Celiac can occur at any age from infancy into adulthood and rates increase as people get older with many in their 50’s and 60’s. NCGS is much more common than celiac, occurring in 1 in 7 people. Some researchers suggest that as much as 30% of the population may have GS.

The range of health problems related to gluten sensitivity are so many and varied, that it would be difficult to rule out gluten as a factor without first eliminating it from the diet. Any and all digestive disturbances can occur including acid reflux, IBS, gas, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, ulcers, liver congestion, gallstones, colitis and Crohn’s disease. Surprisingly, many people with GS may not notice any particular digestive issues, yet problems related to GS will appear elsewhere in the body.

Nutrient malabsorption and enzyme deficiencies associated with GS can lead to a wide spectrum of diseases. Unexplained anemia is a common sign of GS, due to lack of proper absorption of vitamin B12 and iron. Osteoporosis, soft or weak bones, slow bone growth or repair, short stature and rickets can result from malabsorption of the bone building nutrients vitamin K, vitamin D, calcium and magnesium. Poor absorption of essential fatty acids can affect hormone production and contribute to male and female infertility, irregular menstrual cycles, PMS, hot flashes and blood sugar imbalance, including type 1 and 2 diabetes. Toxins circulating in the body contribute to inflammation and weight gain, while some people with GS are unable to gain weight due to malnutrition. Hypoactive thyroid, abnormal hair loss on the head or eyebrows, and chronic skin disorders such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, vitiligo and dermatitis herpetiformis are common with GS. Adrenal stress, fatigue, headaches, vision problems, dry eyes, dental issues, arthritis, peripheral neuropathy, muscle weakness, and ataxia (loss of muscle coordination) have been associated with GS. Environmental allergies, food sensitivities, frequent respiratory congestion, asthma, swollen appearance of the face, and bad breath can also occur. Sjogren’s syndrome, candida, tremors, kidney stones, urinary tract infections and prostate problems can result. A nine year study reported that those with GS had a 35% higher rate of heart disease. An immune system weakened by gluten can lead to susceptibility to bacterial, viral and fungal infections as well as cancer. Studies show a five-fold increase in lymphoma associated with GS. Undigested gluten is a neurotoxin affecting the brain and nervous system which can lead to insomnia, poor cognition, anxiety, panic attacks, depression and schizophrenia. Hepatitis, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, ADHD, learning disabilities, developmental delays and autism have all been linked to GS.

What has happened in the last 50 years to create such a dramatic increase in gluten sensitivity? Unlike traditional diets that consisted of unadulterated whole foods eaten soon after harvest, modern societies ingest vast quantities of packaged, processed, pasteurized nutrient-depleted foods that lack the enzymes and beneficial bacteria needed to digest them. Preservatives and synthetic chemicals in modern food products damage the delicate tissues in the digestive tract and flood the body with toxins. In her book, “Nourishing Traditions”, Sally Fallon points out that while our ancestors ate whole grains, they did not consume them as we do today. Before industrialized society, virtually all cultures soaked or fermented grains for several hours or days before making them into edible dishes such as porridge, casseroles and breads. They knew that this preparation was necessary in order to make them digestible.

All grains, nuts, beans and seeds contain phytic acid which is an enzyme inhibitor that prevents them from sprouting during the winter months. The phytic acid also prevents proper absorption of minerals and other nutrients in the intestinal tract. Grain eating animals have as many as four stomachs and longer intestines, allowing more time to neutralize enzyme inhibiting chemicals in the digestive tract prior to absorption. Birds remove the outer hull of seeds before swallowing them into a gullet where enzyme inhibitors are deactivated before moving down into the stomach for digestion. Humans have a shorter digestive tract to allow animal products to pass quickly before putrefying, making us less adapted to a diet high in grains.

Just as the rain soaked earth encourages the grain or seed to release the enzyme inhibitors and sprout, soaking grains in water allows lactobacilli and other helpful microorganisms naturally present on foods to break down and neutralize the enzyme inhibitors in the grains allowing for proper digestion. During fermentation, lactobacillus and other beneficial strains of microflora (bacteria) and enzymes break down gluten proteins and other nutrients into components that are readily digested and increase the bioavailability of essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals, including vitamins C, E, K and B vitamins. The grain-loving microflora in fermented foods colonize the digestive tract, providing needed assistance for digestion and enhanced immunity (comprising 80% of our immune system). The microflora are also responsible for aiding in the production of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, norephinephrine, dopamine, and melatonin which help us to feel good, sleep well and have energy. Few humans in today’s society have the healthy guts that our ancestors did.

In addition to the lost practice of preparing grains for digestion, the grains that are commercially grown today are very different than they were over a century ago. Until the 1870’s almost all U.S. wheat production consisted of soft wheat varieties with less gluten content. In the mid 19th century a hard spring wheat variety from Central Europe was introduced with higher gluten content. The higher gluten flour created lighter bread and flakier baked goods. Indigenous people tended to avoid this variety of wheat because it went rancid more quickly, was laborious to prepare and harder to chew. Modern industrialized milling procedures allowed the bran and germ to be stripped away from the wheat creating softer, fluffier white flour. Though more expensive to produce, the demand for refined white flour grew and became a status symbol. Eventually inventions such as the reaper, steel plow and high speed steel roller mills helped to produce huge quantities of nutrient-depleted refined white flour which was easily transported by rail to the masses nationwide. In the 1890’s, dried processed breakfast cereals were invented by Kellogg and Post, and Quaker came up with oatmeal and cream of wheat. Rationing during The Great Depression and wartime encouraged people to eat more of these cheaper denatured foods and less meat and dairy. Later, the fast food industry offered hamburgers, pizza, sandwiches, and pasta throughout the U.S.

The modern practice of bread making also played a major role in eroding health. Prior to the 1950s, families and privately owned bakeries created breads from whole grains according to traditional methods which involved fermenting the dough for 8 hours or more. Bakeries required employees to work the night shift to oversee this long important process. Sourdough leavening agent commonly used by preindustrialized cultures consisted of yeast that was attracted or gathered wild from the atmosphere. A slow fermentation process was required to effectively break down gluten proteins into digestible amino acids and release the vitamins and minerals contained in the grains. Though the baker’s yeast commonly used today acts faster, it does not break down the gluten proteins as thoroughly as sourdough leavening. For this reason, sourdough bread is more easily tolerated by those with gluten sensitivity.

From the 1950’s on, corporate bakers bought up small bakeries and added more yeast and accelerants to create the fast loaf which took 3 hours from start to finish, eliminating the need for half the work force. This marked the beginning of the new age of gluten intolerance. Gluten is now also added to processed foods to enhance protein content, taste and texture. Some medications and nutritional supplements may contain gluten. Sprouted bread may also contain traces of indigestible gluten.

In order to restore our health, it is essential that we access the wisdom of traditional food preparation. In her book, “The Body Ecology Diet” Donna Gates presents a diet rich in fermented foods that effectively heals and restores the integrity of the intestinal tract, allowing beneficial microflora to create an inner ecosystem in the gut much like our ancestors had. The diet is gluten-free, offering delicious recipes with gluten-free grains such as quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth. It also introduces fermented vegetables and probiotic liquids derived from grains that encourage grain-loving microflora to colonize the intestinal tract and make it possible to better digest and utilize the nutrients in grains. Low glycemic (sugar content) foods help to balance blood sugar, and food combining and the blood-type diet are incorporated into this healing diet that cleanses, nourishes, balances weight, enhances immunity, uplifts mood and rejuvenates. Due to the important gut-brain connection, the Body Ecology Diet has been very effective at helping to heal autism and other neurological disorders.

It is interesting to note that dairy intolerance is also a modern syndrome, with cases rising sharply after pasteurized milk became mandatory in the early 1900’s. Pasteurization destroys the lactobacillus bacteria and essential enzymes such as lactase that enable milk to be digested. Gluten and dairy intolerance often occur together. Once gluten is removed from the diet and the inner ecosystem is established, raw milk products can be enjoyed and are even easier to digest when fermented.

Since enzyme depletion occurs with GS and many other diseases, high potency therapeutic digestive enzyme supplements are recommended with all meals (especially with cooked food since heat destroys enzymes). Systemic enzymes taken between meals clean the blood of undigested food particles and pathogens. Probiotic supplements can also help to colonize the gut with beneficial microflora and aid digestion.

While going gluten-free may be the first step to recovery, learning how to select and prepare foods that nourish and enhance digestion is essential for achieving optimal health.