Gluten: A Lurking Danger in the Pantry

By Dr. Christine Doherty, ND

Celiac disease is a genetic condition that affects as many as one in 130 Americans. It is the most common genetic disease, yet most people have never heard of it, and it can lead to some of the major diseases that affect our society, including osteoporosis, colon cancer, infertility and obesity.

The problem is that the protein gluten – which is found in wheat, rye and barley – causes the absorbent surface of the intestines to be destroyed or reduced. This causes nutritional deficiencies, which in turn leads to other health problems.

The symptoms of celiac are wide ranging:

  • Anxiety and depression due to the B vitamin deficiencies.
  • Fatigue and pale skin due to iron deficiency.
  • Muscle cramping or twitching caused by magnesium deficiency.
  • Irritable bowel syndrome due to enzyme deficiencies.
  • Osteoporosis from calcium and vitamin D deficiency.
  • Easy bruising from lack of vitamin K.
Infertility is caused by the poor nutritional status. Celiac can even affect the nervous system, causing Multiple Sclerosis-type symptoms such as clumsiness, dizziness, nerve pain, numbness and tingling.

In children, the most common symptom is irritability. Unexplained anemia, irritable bowel syndrome and any autoimmune condition can also be symptoms of this chameleon-like disease.

Celiac is one of the most misdiagnosed diseases in the United States because it can have such diverse symptoms. It takes an average of nine years of seeking medical care before a correct diagnosis is made. An estimated 90 percent of celiacs in the country still don’t know they have it.

The good news is that the intestinal damage begins to reverse for most people in as little as two weeks on a gluten-free diet. If appropriate nutritional supplements are taken, the nutritional deficiencies can be reversed in three months.

Bone density increases by an average of 15 percent the first year after avoiding gluten in people with osteoporosis. The improvements in quality of life are dramatic once the diet is mastered.

Diagnosis involves blood tests for antibodies, intestinal biopsy and response to a gluten-free diet.

The treatment involves a lifelong avoidance of gluten-containing grains. Ingesting even a tiny amount of gluten can cause symptoms to return. This means no ordinary pasta, pizza, cake or cookies and many other common foods.

Many companies are now manufacturing gluten-free versions of these foods. Gluten-free products are expected to be an $8 billion industry in the United States by next year.

After diagnosis it requires a large commitment and a lot help to figure out what one can or can’t eat. There are several celiac support groups in New Hampshire to make the transition easier.

Dr. Christine Doherty is a licensed naturopathic doctor at Balance Point Natural Medicine in Milford, NH. She has celiac disease and is writing a book on the subject.