What Is Gluten Sensitivity? (part 1)

Bread for Ducks is Death for Ducks

Gluten is a big buzzword right now. More and more people are avoiding gluten, the gluten-free food industry is booming, and there are more gluten-free options than ever at restaurants, bakeries, and grocery stores.

Public opinion has often come down against this movement, claiming that the majority of people going gluten-free are misguided and foolish. A couple of months ago there was a flurry of headlines claiming that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is “Just In Your Head“,  “Completely Fake”, “BOGUS”, and even “Bullshit”.  These stories are sensational and clickable, and quickly made the rounds on social media. Yet, they are examples of frankly terrible news reporting. They misrepresent the study being reported, while displaying both a lack of knowledge of the facts and a lack of consideration for people dealing with health problems.

The truth is, non-celiac gluten sensitivity has not been disproven, and to claim that it has been is simply wrong.

Those particular headlines were in response to one recent study that did not find a link between gluten and digestive symptoms in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) patients. This was one study, that only examined one specific question about symptoms in IBS patients– thus it did not disprove the fact that a variety of diseases and harmful effects are still linked to gluten, as seen in a huge body of peer-reviwed scientific research and clinical results. In fact, only a couple of weeks after the study was published, the very same research lab published another study that found a connection between gluten and depression. As the head of the research group Peter Gibson said:

“we know that a lot of people go on gluten-free diets, [and] feel better. And that’s not imagination, that’s real.”

and:

“The story is ongoing. We produced a piece of evidence to say that gluten is being overly blamed, but we have patients who we still believe have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”

This does not sound like someone “saying he got it wrong” about the existence of gluten sensitivty, as the media claimed. Rather, he is saying that this study is one piece in the puzzle of the various effects of gluten, and that there are still many more pieces to look at.

Let us set this study aside for the moment and take a look at one glaring issue: even if this study’s implications are correct and the role of gluten in IBS has been overstated, gluten sensitivity is not just associated with IBS, and it is not even simply a gastrointestinal issue. In fact, one of the main ways that gluten affects the body is through the brain and nervous system, and gluten sensitivity is often exclusively neurological, with no digestive symptoms. Neurological disorders such as migraines, ataxia, dystonia, and peripheral neuropathy are all linked to gluten sensitivity. Psychiatric disorders such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, and ADHD  are also tied to gluten sensitivity. Gluten has been strongly linked with autoimmune diseases, which I will talk more about in my next post. It has also been tied to other disorders such as fibromyalgia. This is not to say that gluten is necessarily the sole cause of all of these, but it is at least found to be a contributing factor.

Here are a few examples of recent research into gluten sensitivity:

  • Fibromyalgia is an elusive syndrome that is often associated with gut problems. In a recent study, 20 patients with fibromyalgia experienced remission from the disease on a gluten-free diet. They were all confirmed not to have celiac, thus the researchers concluded that non-celiac gluten sensitivity may be a cause of the disorder.
  • Depression has been shown to be much more common in those with celiac, and conversely, people who are depressed are more likely to have undiagnosed celiac. As I mentioned above, a recent study found that gluten caused depression even in people without celiac. There is also a recently published case study of a girl who had been on a gluten-free diet and suddenly became severely depressed after beginning to eat wheat daily. She did not have celiac disease. After going back to a gluten-free diet, her depression resolved.
  • Scientists have been exploring the links between wheat, gluten, and schizophrenia for decades, and many studies have shown that a gluten-free diet is effective for many patients. One recent fascinating discovery is that even after controlling for other variables, mothers who have a greater than normal immune reaction to gluten have greatly increased odds of having children who develop schizophrenia. The same did not hold true for an immune reaction to milk casein.
  • ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder) is tied with gluten sensitivity in multiple studies. It has been found that those with ADHD are much more likely to have celiac disease, and when the celiac disease is treated by a gluten-free diet, ADHD symptoms also improve.
  • Autism spectrum is a complex condition with many factors, but many children with autism are greatly helped by a gluten free diet. For example in one study that questioned 387 families with autistic children who were on a gluten-free and casein-free diet, those that reported the closest adherence to the diet also experienced the best improvement in symptoms. From a more biochemical angle, another study found that gluten causes a greater immune reaction in children with autism than in children without autism. Research is ongoing, and shows that gluten-free dietary interventions are promising for improving both symptoms and development in many patients.
  • Type 1 diabetes has been  linked to gluten in multiple studies. One recent study found that for diabetic mice, the risk that their offspring would develop type-1 diabetes was dramatically less when they ate a gluten-free diet during pregnancy and nursing. It has also been shown that if started early enough, a gluten-free diet can cause remission of the disease in humans: one recent case study described a young boy who was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes but was able to put the disease into remission with a gluten-free diet.

You may be wondering: how could gluten be a factor in all of these seemingly unrelated diseases? It is because gluten affects two very integral and vital parts of our bodies: our guts and our immune systems.

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