The staff of life isn’t for everyone

Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are on the rise

Melanie Weir offers celiac-disease-friendly eats at her Gluten Free Specialty Market in Midtown.

Melanie Weir offers celiac-disease-friendly eats at her Gluten Free Specialty Market in Midtown.

Photo By Nick Miller

If people aren’t eating a vegan diet or butchering their own meat these days, it seems like they’re going gluten-free. Everywhere you turn, there are gluten-free products, cookbooks, blogs and stores. But are there really more gluten-intolerant people in 2010 than there used to be?

The answer is a qualified yes. There is an increase in people with celiac disease—but there are also some fad issues at hand.

Some people have a true wheat allergy, which is when their immune system reacts to something containing wheat. Generally, though, the reaction is short-lived. Many children will outgrow this kind of allergy by the time they’re 5 years old.

Then there are people with celiac disease (a.k.a. celiac sprue), an auto-immune disease that is genetically determined, in which the body’s immune system overreacts and doesn’t stop. It can lead to intestinal damage and other multi-organ problems.

And some people are gluten-intolerant. They have an adverse reaction to the gluten protein in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and oats. It isn’t an immune reaction; instead, it’s like lactose intolerance. Their digestion is disrupted, but they may have hundreds of other symptoms—or none—that they associate with eating gluten at all.

Doctors are generally not well-informed about celiac disease and gluten intolerance. They may not test patients adequately or be able to read the results accurately. If someone stops eating gluten before getting tested, it skews the results. But according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, about 1 percent of the U.S. population has some form of gluten intolerance, and 97 percent of them are undiagnosed.

That’s because the symptoms of celiac disease may include not just diarrhea, but fatigue, infertility, anemia, osteoporosis and heartburn. And who isn’t tired and somewhat stressed these days? A little heartburn hardly seems worth seeing a doctor. But the average length of time it takes for a patient to be diagnosed with CD is more than seven years.

And then you also have the “dieter’s dilemma,” as Melanie Weir of Gluten Free Specialty Market, a shop at 2612 J Street, put it.

“Some people are going on a gluten-free diet just to lose weight,” she said. “Since the only health-food category that’s growing is gluten-free, marketers are jumping on the bandwagon.”

Weir opened her shop in July of 2008, after putting together a gluten-free-buying club for a few people she knew. Since then, the availability of gluten-free products has skyrocketed, with sales in the United States going from $300 million in 2003 to $1.8 billion in 2008. People are taking notice, but sometimes in the wrong ways.

“Those with celiac disease don’t want to see gluten-free become a fad,” Weir pointed out.

But, in fact, the number of people with CD has increased, doubling every 15 to 17 years for the last 50 years. Two major theories address this: the stress theory and the hygiene hypothesis.

The stress theory suggests that an overuse of antibiotics, increased levels of stress and increased intake of sugar has decimated good intestinal bacteria and caused people’s bodies to overreact. The hygiene hypothesis supposes that our over-reliance on anti-bacterial products and hyperawareness of dirt have deprived our immune systems (especially when they’re developing as children) of adequate stimuli to learn how to behave properly. Instead, they get “bored” and weak, and react to things that they shouldn’t.

So it is a real issue or a big fad?

“Well, if I get contaminated with gluten, I feel like death,” Weir said. “Otherwise, I’m able to thrive.”

For some people (that 1 percent), living gluten-free is a major health issue akin to a shellfish allergy, and it should be taken that seriously; for others, perhaps not. There’s no scientific evidence that supports avoiding gluten if you don’t need to, and it could lead to nutrient deficiencies. If you have a family member with CD or gluten intolerance, you should be tested. As with any legitimate disease or allergy, you’re always best off getting educated rather than just buying into some shiny new trend.