Gluten makes me sick

Common foods may make you feel horrible or even kill you

The food industry is rife with buzz words and labels, and to those unfamiliar with celiac disease or the slew of related illnesses, a fear of “gluten” seems to be just another health trend for paranoid eaters. Boxes of crackers, cake mixes, sauces and beers with gluten-free claims line grocery store shelves. Many of them are filled with sugars and carbohydrates instead, and the gluten-free industry has made nearly $7 billion from products sold in the past couple of years. Thousands of blogs tackle the topic with anecdotes and personal experiences instead of empirical research, and celebrity spokespeople don’t do much to support its validity with science.

Skeptics have a right to be skeptical, especially when phrases like “g-free” are thrown around, coined by The View co-host Elizabeth Hasselback, who tried to use the phrase as a cooler way to talk about gluten, much to the chagrin of some scientists, doctors and their patients who take the word quite seriously. With celebrity endorsements and foodie blogs more highly publicized than scientific evidence, it can seem that fear and abolishment of bread, pasta and pastries is unfounded. Those are the good foods, the comfort foods, to which Americans have tied memories and traditions. Everything is OK in moderation, right? But Hasselback’s defense for her cutesy phrase is that the word “gluten” is ugly, and is holding back potential conversations we should have about it.

She has a point there. It is an ugly word, and there’s not much that’s pretty about the relationship between many Americans and their food, which has resulted in a rise of obesity and diabetes, and an addiction to sugar and processed foods. And an epidemic of gluten intolerance has come to the forefront of medical research, and it’s something that can’t be fixed with medicine.

It has to start on our plates.

Conventional wisdom says a well-rounded diet full of vegetables is the key to keeping illness, premature aging and weight gain at bay, but grains are a mixed bag. On the updated food plate designed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, a suggested serving takes up a little more than a quarter—nearly equal to the suggested amount of vegetables. The old food pyramid recommended six to 11 servings of grains per day. That means that the past couple of generations have grown up eating cereal for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and carbo-loaded meals for dinner. In many circles, it’s still considered a health food.

Some scientists claim that some grains are OK to digest, and can contribute to long-term heart health. Neuroscientist Darya Pino argues that intact, legitimately whole grains, the ones that still maintain their natural shape and nutrients, are good for humans to consume—it’s the ones incorrectly labeled “whole” that are the problem, because they often simplified in the process of inserting them into whole grain pastas or breads. In any case, grains are engrained—pun intended—into the modern diet, but researchers are divided about when it was first cultivated for consumption by humans, and if it’s even necessary at all for humans to incorporate into their diet. This has led to the establishment of diets like Paleo and keto, which follow a revised caveman-esque diet (“The caveman diet,” Dec. 22) and choose veggies and meat over corn and wheat. Even so, archaeologists have found remnants of flour on artifacts from ancient Rome, and the first mills back date back to 9,000 years ago. But even if our ancestors consumed variations of bread, their process of growing and using wheat is much different than ours today. Some scientists claim that it’s not just the wheat itself wreaking havoc on bodies, but the way it’s used in modern flour. Bread used to be made with slow rise yeast, allowing it to break down more easily in the body, but packaged bread is often made to bake faster, which requires an excess of gluten to help the dough maintain its consistency. Wheat is often bleached for products like white bread or packaged pastries.

In a 2010 article published in the Huffington Post, physician Mark Hyman stated, “American strains of wheat have a much higher gluten content (which is needed to make light, fluffy Wonder Bread and giant bagels) than those traditionally found in Europe. This super-gluten was recently introduced into our agricultural food supply and now has ‘infected’ nearly all wheat strains in America.”

While it is estimated that almost 40 percent of the population in America suffers from a form of gluten intolerance, a lack of reliable testing by medical professionals makes it hard to know just how serious this may be. And quite simply, many are reluctant to give up the foods on which they have come to rely. What could be harmful about a handful of Triscuits for a snack? Sandwiches and mac and cheese are American staples.

But for the 2 million Americans living with celiac disease, epilepsy, migraines and other disorders, staving off gluten can save their lives. And for the rest of us, it’s hard to admit that the foods we love—and refuse to give up—are making us chronically sick.

What it is and what it does

It’s time for a quick vocabulary lesson. What is gluten, anyway?

The Food and Drug Administration defines gluten as complex proteins found in grains like barley and rye that, when mixed with water, thicken and create a sticky substance. It’s what gives dough its gummy texture. It’s also in the dreaded monosodium glutamate (MSG) and provides a basis for sauces. Gluten is often added to soy-based cheese and imitation meat.

It’s onomatopoetic—glue-ten—so avoiding the word, as Hasselback suggests, avoids communicating the nature of the problem.

An abundance of gluten in a person’s digestive system leads to an attack on the tiny villi that line the stomach, which is what filters out the nutrients from food. When the villi are destroyed, people develop a leaky gut—and yes, it sounds gross, because it is—where the toxins of foods are sent into the blood stream. This is when the immune system must go into overdrive to prevent the person from getting sick, which can result in constant pain and fatigue, or make other existing conditions worse.

The amount of villi damaged is what distinguishes an intolerance from a full-blown disease, but many who are already sensitive to gluten are at risk for developing celiac disease later on in their lives. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the healthy bacteria present in the stomach can’t properly absorb the nutrients from food, leaving a person sick and tired. According to the medical journal Lancet, 30 percent of people of European descent possess the gene for celiac disease.

Wheat allergy is essentially like other food allergies and affects people differently, but generally contributes to an increased likelihood of nasal allergies, headaches and migraines. Gluten intolerance is often linked to other ailments such as low gland activity, including adrenal and thyroid disorders, but can also worsen symptoms of neurological disorders like epilepsy or fibromyalgia.

On a spectrum, celiac disease is considered the most extreme form of gluten sensitivity and a potentially life-threatening illness if left untreated. According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, people with celiac disease have a higher risk of dying from heart disease or cancer. Wheat allergy falls between celiac disease and gluten intolerance and can be moderately serious. And because gluten intolerance is not immediately noticeable—and is difficult to test for—it often goes untreated, or is diagnosed as another illness and then mistreated with medication.

“An estimated 99 percent of people who have a problem with eating gluten don’t even know it,” Hyman stated. “They ascribe their ill health or symptoms to something else—not gluten sensitivity, which is 100 percent curable.”

What often sets off a red flag for skeptics is that it can be cured holistically, and it’s not just hippie jargon to make that claim. While not all illnesses are magically cured by munching on leafy greens instead of crackers, removing gluten entirely from patients’ diets has proven effective in dozens of clinical studies conducted with people who suffer from a multitude of serious ailments. It’s also been claimed to be a cause of them.

“A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 ‘diseases’ that can be caused by eating gluten,” according to the Huffington Post article. “These include osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, … rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy and neuropathy (nerve damage).”

“Gluten sensitivity is one of the most common food intolerances,” says Dr. Martin Rutherford, a functional medicine doctor who is a gluten sensitivity coach and a chiropractor, specializing in chronic pain and autoimmune disorders. He also has celiac disease. “Sixty to 70 percent have a genetic problem with gluten, or are at least allergic or sensitive. But there’s not a lot of research on why. Nobody really knows why. Nobody has really studied the sticky part that is doing a lot of the damage.”

It’s not just gluten that’s toxic, but specific proteins gliadin and glutelin that cause a negative reaction in the digestive system.

“This gliadin doesn’t break down like normal proteins,” Rutherford says. “They stick to the inside of the intestines and damage them to the point where they have other foods leaking into your blood stream. Glutelin is the sticky part. A lot of people are sensitive to the sticky part.”

These proteins are nearly identical to casein, which is a protein linked to increasing epileptic seizures or symptoms of autism.

Finding the g-spot

But eliminating gluten is not as easy as just keeping bread and muffins at an arm’s length. Gluten is an ingredient hidden in many common foods and substances, for example, pickles, bouillon cubes, play dough, some vitamins, lip balms and toothpastes all have traces of gluten. You shouldn’t be eating play dough or toothpaste anyway, but if you’re attempting a diet void of gluten, it’s harder than it seems. Most labels on foods do not explicitly state the amount of gluten contained in it, but if a product contains wheat, rye, barley, spelt or emmer, it does. For a full list of unsafe ingredients, visit

But while many restaurants and grocery stores offer gluten-free options, gluten may not be the only ingredient contributing to illnesses. According to Rutherford, most people are intolerant to something, whether it be sugar, sesame seeds or nuts—ingredients that are often used in gluten-free products. So even when they cut out gluten, other food sources are still making them sick, and several allergies working in conjunction result in a patient becoming frustrated when their health continues to deteriorate.

“It’s pretty amazing how much the gluten can attack, but it’s not the only one [protein], and that’s what makes it confusing,” says Rutherford. “There’s so many reasons for these foods causing illnesses.”

Testing for celiac disease is done through a blood test, and a biopsy of a patient’s villi is also conducted if blood tests are non-conclusive. But many doctors are unwilling to diagnose patients for celiac disease unless their villi are 100 percent destroyed.

“Some doctors don’t believe that gluten has this impact on people’s health, and that’s not to speak ill of them,” Rutherford says. “It’s just that the medical model hasn’t adapted to the possibility yet. But there is a lot of peer-reviewed, empirical research in our corner, and a lot of clinical studies to back it up.

“But this isn’t an acute pain model, and trying to apply acute pain applications, like pain pills or medications, to chronic pain patients doesn’t work. Things that are causing them to get worse aren’t being addressed. They take an anti-inflammatory [medication] and then go home and stuff themselves with bread and pasta. Eventually, the drugs don’t work.”

Put the pasta down and nobody gets hurt

Even though “gluten-free” labels are common, and intolerance is fairly easy to self-diagnose and test by a trial elimination of gluten, Rutherford says that no patients ever come in stating that they think they might be sensitive or allergic to it.

“If anything, many flat out reject the idea,” he says. “They go into denial about it. Or they say that they’ve tried not eating gluten for two weeks, and nothing has changed, when they should try it for at least two months to see the results.”

Eliminating gluten for the sake of better health—and the abolishment of some severe diseases—might seem like an easy option. But its presence in foods to which we have an emotional attachment makes it an unthinkable option for some patients, even if they are killing themselves by digesting it.

“Some jump on it right away and say, ‘That’s all I have to do to feel better?’” Rutherford says. “Some people freak out when we tell them they can’t have gluten anymore. Some start shaking. Others have tears in their eyes. They are severely addicted to it.

“And some just flat out refuse to give it up. It’s like cocaine to them. Sometimes they’ll cut it out entirely for a year, and get better, and then start eating it again. It’s really hard for them to admit that they can’t have it anymore, because it’s so much a part of how we eat. But it’s an addiction, it’s a habit. It’s kind of a study of human nature to see how far a person will go to make themselves feel better.”

Cake or death

A gluten-free lifestyle has become a choice for those with celiac disease and those who want to prevent it. Gluten-free communities often partner with local agriculture organizations to promote organic, wholesome eating. Mary Reynolds, a registered dietician at Renown South Meadows who has celiac disease, helps host a support group, High Sierra Gluten Free Support Group. Those interested in joining can contact her at

While most nutritionists and doctors don’t always suggest that everyone go gluten-free. Reynolds doesn’t think it’s necessary.

“I don’t want people following the diet if they don’t have to,” she says. “Why make eating more difficult for yourself?”

But Rutherford says there is compelling research to support that even healthy people should cut it out of their diet.

“It could be that humans just haven’t evolved to be able to handle this kind of food,” Rutherford says.

That means that humans have two choices—own up to our addictions and eat simply and live healthier, or evolve into beings with super-strength stomach villi. How many times must humans be told that the things to which we get addicted are poisonous before we stop ingesting it into our bodies? People still smoke cigarettes, still refuse to exercise, still drink and eat to excess. Americans are conditioned to live in opulence—which has resulted in millions living shorter, painful, disease-ridden lives.

“Nothing is going to change for us unless we make drastic life changes,” Rutherford says. “Food can be your medicine or your poison.”