By Sheryl Sanchez, L.Ac., Heavenly Herbs and Acupuncture
Research shows that many serious health conditions can be related to the consumption of gluten in our diet and are due to a sensitivity or allergy to gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye. It is also in most oats, because they are tainted with wheat in processing facilities. It is found in all bread, pastries, and pasta, most cereals, and a large variety of packaged goods (for example, soy sauce contains wheat and is added to many condiments). It has been proposed that the problem of digesting gluten may be a result of the genetic alteration of these grains (to improve bread making) through the millennia.[i]
Until recently, the common medical understanding was that gluten sensitivity, or more specifically, celiac disease (CD), was uncommon[ii] and that it was a gastrointestinal disease presenting primarily with symptoms of diarrhea, gastric distress, and emaciation due to malabsorption of nutrients. Now research shows that celiac disease is actually very common, it is often “silent” (i.e., patients are often asymptomatic of gastrointestinal symptoms), that as much as 1 percent of the population has this condition,[iii] particularly those of European ancestry,[iv] that it is more prevalent in women than men (by three to one), and can present at any age.[v]
Celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction to gluten resulting in a permanent intolerance of gluten, and therefore it is considered an autoimmune disease. It is now known that this inflammatory, autoimmune reaction occurs in many areas of the body. Typically it causes small intestine damage with nutrient malabsorption and also is commonly misdiagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (59 percent).[vi] It can very commonly cause osteoporosis (also in men)[vii] and it occurs so frequently that anyone with osteoporosis should also be tested for CD.[viii] CD can also commonly causes unexplained muscle pain and weakness[ix] and many neuromuscular disorders.[x] CD is also very common with any other autoimmune disorder such as Type 1 diabetes (especially), lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Hashimoto’s disease (the most common type of hypothyroidism), or a familial history of such. And CD itself is genetic, so any time someone is newly diagnosed, other family members should be tested also. The brain is also “particularly vulnerable” to the immunologic response of CD.[xi] It has been recommended that all children with behavior disorders or ADHD-like symptoms be tested for CD.[xii] Neuropsychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, and schizophrenia are also common with CD.[xiii] [xiv] Brain changes can mimic multiple sclerosis or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease). Furthermore, other neurological conditions such as peripheral neuropathy, migraines, dementia, and epilepsy can be caused by CD[xv] and for any unexplained neurological condition, testing for CD should be done.[xvi] And CD could also be a causative agent in Alzheimer’s disease.[xvii] (Note: Most commercially processed baked goods, regardless of grains used, use aluminum-containing baking powder and aluminum is associated with developing this condition).[xviii] Additionally, infertility or recurrent miscarriages can also be due to CD.[xix] CD can also present as an intensely pruritic dermatitis and is often misdiagnosed as eczema.[xx] Also note that intestinal permeability or “leaky gut” caused by Candida albicans or yeast overgrowth can be a trigger for the onset of gluten sensitivity.[xxi]
A diagnosis is made by blood tests. If one is gluten sensitive, it is also highly likely that one will be lactose or dairy intolerant (which can usually be reversed long-term), so this should also be tested for. And because thyroid disorders are so common among true CD patients, thyroid levels should also be tested and monitored. Several natural-medicine practitioners, such as licensed acupuncturists (L.Ac.), naturopathic doctors (ND), and chiropractors (DC), can order and evaluate these lab tests, recommend dietary changes, and prescribe natural, herbal, and homeopathic medicinals for treatment.
One can be only sensitive to gluten or have true CD and its intestinal impairment or impermeability. If CD is diagnosed, the adherence to a very strict “gluten-free” (GF) diet is essential to long-term health. This treatment is curative, although herbal medicinals should be used to completely heal the body. However, this diet can be difficult to do even with the advent of more GF products. Although it may be challenging and will take planning, it can be accomplished—when your health problems are resolved it becomes well worth it too! So for someone sensitive to gluten, a diet of fresh vegetables, especially dark green leafy ones, fruits, legumes, and nongluten whole grains, such as quinoa, brown rice, millet, and buckwheat (yes, this is not a wheat product), and low amounts of animal protein (if not a vegetarian) is the plan. Dairy products should also be avoided. Overall, keep a whole-foods diet in mind versus leaning toward gluten-free processed foods.
Healing intestinal inflammation and impermeability is of utmost importance in treatment. Nutrition, nutritional supplements, and herbal medicinals will heal the inflammation in the small intestine, strengthen the digestive system, and reverse many complications of CD. Folic acid and iron deficiency are the most commonly known absorption difficulties, so these typically need supplementation. In reality, all of the vitamin B complex is needed in higher “stress” dosages. Omega 3s (both EPA and DHA) are one priority to heal inflammation. Fish oil is needed in the dosages of 1,000 mg/day (minimum), but most could use 3,000 mg/day. Resveratrol, an antioxidant from red grape skins, is also needed to stop the inflammatory cascade seen in CD[xxii] and vitamin D3 will help mediate the autoimmune reaction.[xxiii] Adequate levels of vitamin D are necessary, so blood levels should be tested for accurate dosing. Glutathione, a strong antioxidant, and its precursor L-glutamine (please do not confuse these as containing gluten!), an amino acid, are very effective at healing intestinal permeability, along with zinc carnosine.[xxiv] [xxv] Another antioxidant isolate, EGCG (epigallacatehin gallate from green tea), inhibits the inflammatory response seen in CD.[xxvi] L-carnitine, another amino acid, may also be needed (especially for neurological symptoms).[xxvii] Nutraceutical extracts of acacia and hops will also help the inflammatory reactions.[xxviii] Additionally, acupuncture and Chinese herbal medicinals have their own benefits of healing inflammation and the digestive system, including the other complications of CD.
Research material is derived from seminars attended since 2008 taught by Dr. Thomas O’Bryan. Sheryl Sanchez, L.Ac., is affiliated with “Gluten World” on TheDr.com as a gluten coach.
You can contact Sheryl at firstname.lastname@example.org
Baum, James, Dr. A Scientific Explanation of Gluten Intolerance, http://drjamesbaum.com/200, last accessed 12/3/10.