A few years ago while running the Vancouver Sun Run I had an interesting conversation with a medical doctor. When I told her that I am a Naturopathic Physician she commented, “In the ER, everyone who sees a naturopath says they are allergic to wheat. Let me guess? You’re going to tell me I have to stop eating wheat now too? Not quite, eliminating just wheat doesn’t cut it. Gluten is the real bad guy.
There is a paradigm difference between conventional medicine and naturopathic medicine in their understanding of dietary allergies and intolerances. Often, naturopathic doctors will suggest patients remove gluten containing foods from their diets in an effort to determine whether it is the reason someone might be suffering from what can be a vast array of symptoms. These symptoms can look like migraines, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal bloating, muscle pain, skin rashes, infertility, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and a whole host of other symptoms. Gluten intolerance is a chameleon. It can look like almost any other disease because it’s effects in the body are far reaching beyond our digestion and can be both insidious and acute, specific or vague, and mild to severe. Because of the nature of gluten intolerance it is not difficult to see why many health practitioners would recommend removing it from the diet to simply ensure it is not the culprit.
In a percentage of our population, gluten promotes a sometimes measurable immune reaction that damages the lining of the intestines called Celiac Disease. This is responsible for much of the digestive symptoms that accompany the disease. In an effort to manage the gluten reactivity in our guts, our immune system can mistakenly target our own cells throughout the body. In a case of mistaken identity our immune system might think our joints, glands, or other tissues are part of the problem and try to create inflammation or other processes to control the disease. Instead, this reaction creates more disease hence the great diversity in symptoms from individual to individual who all may have gluten intolerance. Eliminating gluten containing foods like Barley, Rye, Wheat, Spelt, and Kamut often reveal a dietary trigger to symptoms.
Celiac Disease can usually be measured by testing our immune system for antibodies against gluten proteins, but the gold standard test is a biopsy of the intestinal tissue to gauge if there is damage. What we commonly see in practice are negative tests results for both the biopsy and the antibody test in individuals who experience gluten related symptoms. When researched, even individuals with no intestinal damage will respond favourably to a gluten free diet. It’s a confusing picture. If gluten works by harming our digestive tissue why don’t we see that in all cases? We believe the nature of the disease has been misunderstood and that it can look like and act like more than we have given it credit for in the past. But more recently, many health practitioners are waking up to the idea that we must throw our net wider to encompass a lot more than just diarrhea and constipation as gluten related symptoms. Research is now showing that schizophrenia and other mental illnesses improve when gluten proteins are removed from the diet – a remarkable finding. It is for these reasons that we believe it is worth the effort to eliminate all gluten containing foods from one’s diet to determine if it may be responsible or at the very least contributing to dis-ease.
Today, gluten intolerance is being diagnosed much more readily than just 10 years ago. It is believed that the way we have cultivated wheat over the millenia has contributed to the problem. Wheat and it’s gluten related cousins (Rye and Barley) used to have significantly less gluten proteins in them before farmers started breeding and cultivating more gluten concentrated plants. Rising gluten concentration equals better rising baked breads. Breads and cereal grains have become major staples in the Western diet. It is no wonder we are seeing the rising rates of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Our bodies have not adjusted to the relatively recent introduction of so much gluten into our diets. We are fortunate now that food companies, grocers, and restaurants are acknowledging the need for gluten free foods. Fortunately, I believe we will see the gluten free sections of our grocery markets and restaurant menus grow for years to come. For a better understanding of your diet and potential ways to determine of gluten’s influence consult one of the practitioners at evolve Nurturing Vitality.
Dr. Bobby Parmar