The Staff of Life, Part 2: Gluten Intolerance

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By Elena Day

For Part One, Click Here

Before wading into the somewhat controversial subject of gluten intolerance, sensitivity, and allergy, I urge readers to call their Congressional representatives regarding the fate of the Farmers Assurance Provision, more aptly called the Monsanto Protection Act, which was signed into law last March. On September 24, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) struck the Monsanto Protection Act from the Continuing Resolution to fund the federal government. The House version of the CR extended the Monsanto Protection Act, thus the need to weigh in.

The law strips the federal courts of authority to halt the sale or planting of illegal and potentially hazardous Genetically Engineered crops while USDA assesses these crops. It also compels USDA to allow continued planting of a crop upon request, even if the assessment finds that it poses previously unrecognized risks.

There was a worldwide outcry after the law passed, especially since this was followed in April by the discovery of unapproved RoundUp Ready wheat contamination of a field in Oregon. Europe and Asia do not buy GE wheat and consequently U.S. sales faltered. Monsanto is currently testing the next generation of GE wheat in North Dakota and Hawaii.

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Gluten is present in wheat, rye, and barley. I first became aware of gluten intolerance/allergy/ sensitivity when numerous customers at my booth at Charlottesville City Market informed me that they had become “gluten-free” and could no longer eat pies or apple cake. Then a couple of vendors appeared selling gluten-free products. They tasted okay, but I assume they are quite expensive to make as the base is often nut flour, like almond.

I decided to find out more about this newly identified syndrome that seems to be affecting a lot of people.

Distillation of the amount of information regarding gluten and allergies to gluten on the Internet is daunting. There is Celiac disease, and there is gluten intolerance/sensitivity/ allergy.

Celiac disease was first described by the ancient Greeks. It is an autoimmune digestive disorder. In response to gluten ingestion, the immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine, resulting in villous atrophy. The villi are there to absorb nutrients and when these atrophy, malnutrition, osteoporosis, and sometimes cancer ensue. Generally, endoscopy is necessary to verify villi dysfunction/atrophy.

Gluten intolerance presents near identical symptoms as Celiac disease (as well as symptoms of many other diseases). Digestive symptoms of both syndromes include diarrhea, heartburn, bloating, and constipation. Other symptoms are fatigue, brain fog, headaches, depression and anxiety, anemia, joint pain, and rashes. Dermatitis herpetiformes, a very itchy rash characterized by blisters filled with watery fluid, is diagnostic of Celiac disease. This connection was first recognized in 1967. The autoantigens of Celiac disease can be detected in papules of the rash. One percent of the population suffers from Celiac disease.

Gluten intolerance is less understood and needs further study. A 2011 University of Maryland study found that persons with gluten sensitivity have a different immune system reaction than those with Celiac disease. In the former, the body detects gluten as an “invader” and fights it with inflammation in the digestive tract and elsewhere. Dr. Fasano at UMD believes that 6 to 7 percent of the population suffers symptoms of gluten intolerance. Other researchers number sufferers as high as 50 percent.

Another researcher, Dr. Ford of Christchurch, New Zealand, describes “the gluten syndrome” (in a book of the same name) as a neurological disorder resulting in gastrointestinal symptoms caused by irritation to the autonomic nervous system.

And to add to the confusion, 27 potential wheat allergens have been identified,  gluten being one. Wheat allergies result in wheezing, stuffy nose and watery eyes,  itching and hives, and rarely, even anaphylaxis.

There are no specific tests for gluten intolerance. Most folks self-diagnose, and symptoms or severity thereof are subjective. Often simply not eating products containing wheat, barley and rye results in symptomatic relief.

I continue to wonder why there is such a surge of gluten intolerance and find it difficult to accept the explanation that it is the increase in gluten in strains of wheat currently cultivated. It doesn’t seem immunologically plausible since in other allergies, such as to peanuts or tree nuts, an infinitesimal amount can cause severe symptoms, even anaphylaxis. I also feel quite cynical about the food industry and its “gluten-free food” labels on now appearing on everything from potato chips to peanut butter and yogurt.

Finally, I wonder if all those processed wheat/gluten products we’ve been consuming in ever-increasing abundance for the last 50 years also contain various and numerous additives that result in diverse and various symptoms, depending on  the particular individual and his physiology.  What do we know about the cumulative or synergistic effects of ingesting the food-thickener maltodextrin, or calcium proprionate in bread, or TBHQ (tert-Butylhydroquinone) in crackers, and a thousand others additives and preservatives that appear to be in just about  everything in the middle aisles of our grocery stores? Couldn’t they, too, be contributing to the diverse symptoms and/or general malaise that gluten intolerant folks describe and seek to relieve?

I look forward to more study.