Gluten: Trust Your Gut Scientists Confirm Widespread Sensitivity
by Claire O’Neil
Walk through the gluten-free product aisles at the grocery or health food store and many people might wonder: “Is this a food fad? Who has a problem with gluten?”
As it turns out, more people have gluten sensitivity than scientists, physicians and researchers previously thought. A study at the University of Maryland School of Medicine’s Center for Celiac Research estimates that 6 percent of the U.S. population, or more than 18 million individuals, have some sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in wheat (including kamut and spelt), barley, rye, malts and triticale.
Research published online by BMC Medicine and CeliacCenter.org this year provides the first scientific evidence of what many people allergic to gluten already know: While gluten sensitivity presents less serious negative health effects than celiac disease, its host of symptoms can become problematic. An earlier study in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics concluded that for dealing with both wheat allergies and celiac disease, the dietary avoidance of gluten-containing grains is the only effective treatment.
Case in Point
Carol Mahaffey, a tax attorney in Columbus, Ohio, was experiencing intermittent joint pain and what she calls “living in a fog,” in the summer of 2009. Because she had read that joint pain can sometimes be caused by gluten sensitivity, she decided to eliminate gluten from her diet.
Although her new regimen didn’t relieve the joint pain—she was later professionally diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis—she found that after four to five weeks, she looked and felt better overall. “I was losing weight, my digestive system was better and I found it easier to mentally focus. Somebody at work also happened to mention that I didn’t sniffle anymore,” she relates. Although Mahaffey’s blood tests were negative for celiac disease, she had all the signs that she is gluten-sensitive.
“Imagine degrees of gluten ingestion along a spectrum,” says Dr. Alessio Fasano, a professor of pediatrics, medicine and physiology and director of the Center for Celiac Research. “At one end, you have people with celiac disease, who cannot tolerate one crumb of gluten in their diet. At the other, you have the lucky people who can eat pizza, beer, pasta and cookies—with no ill effects whatsoever. In the middle, there is this murky area of those with gluten reactions, including gluten sensitivity,” says Fasano, who led the new study. “This is where we are looking for answers on how to best diagnose and treat this recently identified group of gluten-sensitive individuals.”
Until more definitive answers come to light, those who suspect they might have an issue with gluten can try going gluten-free for a period of time, like Mahaffey. “I had to become a label reader,” she advises, “because even things like bottled soy sauce can contain gluten.” She buys baked goods at a local gluten-free bakery, still enjoys wine with gluten-free snacks, uses gluten-free dough to make her own pizza at home, and has become a fan of risotto.
For people that travel on a similar path, the feel-good benefits of a gluten-free diet can more than make up for some of the inconveniences. “You just make it work,” says Mahaffey. On a recent get-together with longtime college friends at a chalet in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, Mahaffey brought her own snacks and breakfast foods, asked questions about the menu when they went out to dinner, and ended up having a great, gluten-free time.
Claire O’Neil is a freelance writer in Kansas City, MO.