If you have Celiac disease or are gluten sensitive, you're probably used to this question. "How would I know if I had a problem with gluten?" "What would I feel?"
Whether it's asked by a concerned friend or a curious waitperson at a restaurant, once someone knows that you're gluten sensitive, the question mentioned above usually comes into the conversation.
Most people assume that if you were having trouble with a food you'd have a digestive complaint. While that is often true with gluten sensitivity, 2/3 of the time it isn't. Next to the digestive tract, the next most afflicted system from gluten sensitivity is the immune system. Why? What health problems might that cause? Glad you asked! Read on...
When gluten comes into the body of a gluten sensitive person, the body is unable to digest the protein. Instead it invokes a response similar to when a toxin enters the body and the immune system launches that response.
If you consider the frequency with which we consume gluten-containing grains in this country you start to get the idea of how often the immune system would get called into action. After years and years of several times per day responses, the immune system starts to get worn down in the intestine.
Considering it is estimated that the intestines are confronted with a pathogenic organism every 10 minutes in a normal person, the now weakened immune system of a gluten sensitive person is often unable to adequately defend itself and an infection can occur.
These intestinal infections can cause a myriad of problems but not always the one you'd assume, which is diarrhea. Countless times patients who suspected infections were told by their doctor that since they didn't complain of diarrhea there was no reason to test them. After two decades of experience I can tell you that is not the case.
The presence of gluten not only weakens the immune system of the intestine but it also degrades the very structure of the intestine itself. This compromises the intestine's ability to do its job of absorbing the nutrients you consume. Once again your intuitive thought might be that if you were malaborbing your nutrients you'd probably be losing weight. That is usually not the case. When you malabsorb your cells go into starvation mode, your metabolism decreases, and often the body starts to gain weight!
Therefore obesity is a sign of malabsorption. Most physicians in this country equate gluten sensitivity with Celiac disease. Celiac is suffered by approximately 1% of our population. Research estimates that gluten sensitivity is conservatively present in approximately 40% of our population – big discrepancy there. So not only does it take the average person suffering from Celiac disease a decade to receive their diagnosis, another 40% of the population is suffering with the same problem, gluten sensitivity, and never being diagnosed.
That is why this blog came into existence. And that’s why I just finished writing my book on gluten. (Hold for publish date, it’s only just arrived in the editing department.)
So, let’s get back to the immune system and why 2/3 of the time patients have non-digestive complaints.
We talked about the fact that the small intestine begins to structurally degrade and how that can cause malabsorption. Obviously if you are not absorbing adequate nutrition from your food, your cells will not get properly nourished and that can create multiple problems. But the loss of structural integrity also creates an interesting problem. Imagine that your intestine is a very sieve with microscopic holes. The holes are so small to ensure that food gets properly digested before it enters the bloodstream. But when the integrity is lost it affects the size of the holes as well. The microscopic holes actually get enlarged. This is knows as increased intestinal permeability, or “leaky gut”.
The significance behind “leaky gut” when it comes to a person suffering gluten sensitivity is that partially digested gluten proteins make their way out into the bloodstream via these enlarged “holes”. The immune system of the bloodstream marks this protein as an invader and mounts a response to destroy it. Unfortunately, the make-up of the gluten protein is very similar to the structural make-up of some of the parts of our body. After seeing this protein and attacking it as a foreign invader the immune system starts to see other extremely similar proteins in the body and mistakes them for gluten. This is known as “molecular mimicry” and it is at the root of why gluten sensitivity is associated with various auto-immune diseases such as cancer, diabetes, thyroid disease, arthritis, osteoporosis and more.
Simply speaking your own immune system confuses your body parts for gluten and starts destroying them.
It is exciting to work with such patients who have been given no hope for their condition other than dangerous drugs which suppress their immune system. The immune system doesn’t need suppressing it simply needs to stop reacting gluten and confusing other body parts for gluten. That is done by removing gluten from the diet and building up the immune system – not beating it down with drugs.
So when someone asks what symptoms are associated with gluten sensitivity, let them know that while the list is long, it’s also very treatable. It includes such things as:
To your good health,
Dr Vikki Petersen