Is Gluten Ruining Your Health (Or Are We Way Too Paranoid?)

Is gluten killing us or not?

A $2 billion gluten-free food industry says yes. Science obligingly bolsters this boom with a raft of recent studies linking gluten consumption with health woes far worse than the cramps and diarrhea with which it is usually linked.

Not that cramps and diarrhea are a walk in the park. Who could be grateful for having only those? But recent studies connect the consumption of gluten -- a protein found in wheat, barley and rye -- with autism, schizophrenia, lymphoma, lupus, multiple sclerosis, infertility, chronic numbness, severe balance problems and more. So even if you think you're not gluten-sensitive or that you don't have celiac disease, the best-known gluten-triggered disorder, gluten might still be ravaging your brain.

A 2002 study affiliated with the UK's Royal Hallamshire Hospital linked gluten consumption with the loss of brain cells in the white matter of the cerebellum.

A 2009 Duke University study followed the case of a schizophrenic woman who for decades had been assailed by hallucinatory skeletons and daily voices in her head. She had survived five suicide attempts. For this woman, the study reads, "a typical day's diet consisted of the following: egg and cheese sandwich, diet soda, water, pimento cheese, barbequed pork, chicken salad, hamburger helper, macaroni and cheese, and potatoes."

In hopes that going gluten-free might help her, "she was instructed how to follow a dietary regimen consisting of unlimited meats and eggs, 4 ounces of hard cheese, 2 cups of salad vegetables, and 1 cup of low-carbohydrate vegetables per day" -- but no grains.

Within a week, "she was feeling well, and noted an increase in energy." Three weeks hence, "she was no longer hearing voices or seeing skeletons. ... She had had no change in medication. The only change had been in her dietary intake."

Sans gluten, "the abrupt resolution of longstanding schizophrenic symptoms was observed."

Past studies cited decreased hospital admissions for schizophrenia in areas where bread consumption was reduced during World War II, as well as the rarity of schizophrenia on South Pacific islands where grains are scarce.

A Penn State study published just last week in the journal Nutritional Neuroscience found that diets free of both gluten and the milk protein casein improved behavioral, social and physiological symptoms among children on the autism spectrum. Citing improvements in language production, eye contact, social responsiveness, request making and attention span, the study suggests strong links between autism and the gastrointestinal tract.

But in a randomized, double-blinded 2010 University of Rochester study, autistic children on a gluten- and casein-free diet showed no improvements whatsoever.

As with most health issues, it's impossible to find 100 percent consensus here. Meanwhile, some in the media -- including myself -- have hailed gluten, aka seitan, aka textured vegetable protein, as God's gift to vegetarians and vegans: a chewy, tasty, versatile, nutritious faux meat that you can make at home for pennies. Is gluten's cheap deliciousness -- and also that of most breads, cakes, cereals, pasta and crackers -- worth the risk, when researchers can't agree what that risk is, or to whom?

Wheat allergies exist, but in fewer than 1 percent of children, according to a University of Maryland study published just last month -- "and most outgrow it by age five."

Celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder in which gluten-triggered antibodies flatten structures lining the intestines, leading to diarrhea, malnutrition and other potentially lethal conditions, can be diagnosed only after extensive tests entailing biopsies. Affecting one in every 133 Americans, CD has increased fourfold in the last 50 years, according to the Maryland study, and is now "being diagnosed in people as old as 70 who have eaten gluten safely all their lives."

So what are we to make of this?

"We are observing another interesting phenomenon that is generating great confusion among healthcare professionals," reads the UM study. "The number of individuals embracing a gluten-free diet appears much higher than the projected number of celiac disease patients. ... It is now becoming clear that ... there are cases of gluten reactions in which neither allergic nor autoimmune mechanisms can be identified."

This amorphous mass of cases is defined as non-celiac gluten sensitivity and it has become a new niche for food producers. The GF-products market grew by 28 percent from 2004 to 2011. But the Maryland study asks how many people go gluten-free for no medical reason at all -- e.g., because it seems trendy.

"There are a number of misconceptions about the gluten-free diet: that it's a new version of the Atkins Diet, that it's a low- or no-carb diet, that it's a weight-loss diet, that it's a fad diet, that it's inherently healthier than a 'standard' diet," says Peter Bronski, founder of the blog, No Gluten, No Problem and coauthor of The Gluten-Free Edge, Artisanal Gluten-Free Cooking and Artisanal Gluten-Free Cupcakes.

Although "people are jumping onto the gluten-free bandwagon for these or other reasons ... it's critically important to emphasize that for millions of Americans, the gluten-free diet is medically necessary. For them it is not a fad; it's a lifelong commitment."

Bronski says he was "de facto diagnosed with celiac disease" in 2007: A holistic practitioner whom he told about the "terrible daily diarrhea, fatigue, and acute abdominal pain" that were wrecking his life advised him to go gluten-free. The result? "The seemingly miraculous resolution of symptoms."

"I broke the rules in the sense that I never got formally tested for celiac disease. I felt so good on a gluten-free diet, and was so sick eating gluten, that I never went back to gluten in order to obtain positive test results," explains Bronski, who is also a champion triathlete and spokesperson for the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

"Going gluten-free was an unbelievably and dramatically positive change. Within weeks I felt better than I had in years. I've described it as a deafening silence; the complete absence of debilitating symptoms was conspicuous."

Bronski advocates "focusing on the positive," on what can be cooked and enjoyed while staying gluten-free. He also advocates stronger truth in labeling.

"The FDA is finally making progress in this regard, after being stalled for years. We need a unified gluten-free standard, product labeling protocols, and ingredient and manufacturing transparency. When a manufacturer makes a GF claim on a product label or packaging, does 'gluten-free' mean zero gluten? Less than twenty parts per million? Some other standard? Has the product been tested to verify gluten levels? Has the product been manufactured in a dedicated facility? Or in a shared facility? Or on a shared production line?"

He's in it for life. Others -- how many? -- will jump off this bandwagon when the next one pulls up.


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