A pizza crust, a loaf of French bread and a plate of spaghetti walk into a bar. The bartender says, “What can I get you fellas?” and the pizza crust says, “Some Pepto Bismal. We all have horrible stomach aches.”
Not very funny, is it? That’s because gluten intolerance is no joke. Every year, I see more patients with rashes, or intestinal and joint pain who suspect that wheat products may be the culprit.
Popular theories speculating as to why wheat gluten is particularly dangerous are sprouting up everywhere. So before I get into which theories do make sense, let me respond to those that I think hold little water.
Pop Theory: (Comes from: Wheat Belly, a fun-to-read book by Dr. William Davis) Modern high-yield wheat is so different from wheat grown 10,000 years ago that it’s been rendered unsafe to eat.
My take: All crops have been bred to be high yield; wheat is no exception.
Pop Theory: (Comes from: Various Paleo-and-Primal diet gurus) Man evolved as a hunter-gatherer, and shouldn’t eat wheat because it is an agricultural product.
My take: All vegetables (and fruit) in our stores are agricultural products, and I don’t think it makes sense to avoid eating vegetables.
Pop Theory: (Comes from: Wheat Belly, again. Lots of good info in this book but I don’t agree with all of it.) Wheat is a grass, something human beings are not adapted to eat.
My take: Rice is a grass, and few people are allergic to it.
Pop Theory: (Comes from: The Weston A Price Foundation–one of my favorite sources of info, but this one got by their science editor!) Gluten is an anti-nutrient and in the past we’d sprout seeds to neutralize the anti-nutrient.
My take: An anti-nutrient is a compound that binds nutrients so that they are not available to our bodies and thus pass right through us, unabsorbed. Gluten does not fit into this category and therefore is not an antinutrient. I agree with their stance on sprouting, however. While not neccesary for the body to process gluten, sprouting does facilitate the processing of other components in wheat and I highly recommend sprouted grain products whenever they are an option to you.
Now, I acknowledge that it’s become very fashionable for doctors and alternative practitioners to talk “underlying causes,” but what’s wrong with the above theories is that they fail to consider that the underlying cause of gluten intolerance and Celiac disease is not some inherent problem with gluten (the protein in wheat that makes bread doughy). The underlying problem is that people who have gluten intolerance and Celiac disease have white blood cells that are running amok.
Think of these disruptive white blood cells as a pack of fraternity brothers after a night of drinking Red Bulls and Vodka—hopped up, aggressive and easily confused.
If, say, an invading bacteria enters the body, white cells attack it without mercy. They even keep a kind of record of the invader, called an antibody, for later reference. It’s like giving a photo to the bouncer guarding the front door and saying, “If this dude ever shows up again, pin this photo to his chest to identify him so that all the brothers know to escort him off the property.”
The immune system even has special T-cells that chaperone this activity, playing the role of the levelheaded president of the fraternity. If the white blood cells start attacking the wrong thing, these special T-cells call off the attack, saying, “Hey, settle down! It’s cool.”
But what if the fraternity president could no longer keep the overzealous pledges in check?
On a typical American diet rife with sugar, carbohydrates (which turn to sugar once digested) and toxic vegetable oils, our bodies are in a constant state of inflammation. And inflammation impairs the immune system’s ability to self-regulate. It’s as if the president of the fraternity—the responsible one—were passed out next to the keg while the young men in his charge run amuck.
Here’s how this can lead to gluten intolerance. Processed gluten in, say, a snack chip, is—much like a polyunsaturated molecule in processed Canola oil—distorted, an unnatural shape. In the stomach, this strange shape elicits the attention of the immune system (something that appears foreign enough to get the immune system’s attention is called an adjuvant). The immune system attacks this adjuvant and then creates antibodies in case it ever shows up again.
The particular problem with distorted gluten is that it bears a likeness to certain molecules in the tissues of your body, so mush so that these tissues wind up getting tagged with antibodies. When the white blood cells see those tags, they do what they’re supposed to: attack.
When this attack happens chronically, it can start to hurt, especially in the gut and joints. This is celiac disease. And the attack won’t cease until the president of the fraternity sobers up, which is to say, until the chronic inflammation finally subsides.
That’s why I consider gluten intolerance and celiac as a symptom of underlying inflammation. This means avoiding gluten is only the first step. To address the underlying cause, we need to eliminate pro-inflammatory foods.
Speaking of which, a sourdough loaf says to her psychiatrist, “I think I’m gluten intolerant.” The psychiatrist says, “Aha! A classic case of self-loafing.”
Okay, that one is a little funny.
Read about why your immune system malfunctions and how celiac causes joint pains on this post.
Find some outside the box breakfast options on this page.
Food Rules: A Doctor’s Guide to Healthy Eating summarizes the principles of anti-inflammatory shopping, cooking, and mindful eating. I recently heard from a woman who read the whole thing in an afternoon at the beach and went home, rearranged her kitchen, four months later she lost 40 pounds and was off all her medications.
This piece is also posted in the Napa Valley Register.