For years, the medical community as a whole has resisted recommending a gluten-free diet to patients who have not tested positive for celiac disease, a digestive ailment that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients as a result of eating gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. At the same time, an opposing faction of nutritionists and health-care professionals, bolstered by studies, have argued that gluten can be damaging to even those without celiac disease, and result in a host of problems that range from sleeplessness to low energy to joint pain.
It appears the divide may be closing. Medical experts now agree that there is a condition related to gluten other than celiac disease, which they’re calling non-celiac gluten sensitivity. The condition is described as affecting someone who does not have celiac disease, but whose health improves on a gluten-free diet and worsens again if gluten is eaten.
John Bagnulo, PhD, MPH, who teaches nutrition in Kripalu’s Healthy Living programs, would argue that definition of gluten sensitivity, in fact, applies to most of us. Much of the problem with determining gluten intolerance is that there is no uniform diagnostic test. Tests range from blood tests to intestinal biopsies to genetic testing, causing many people to receive false negatives. “I think there is a spectrum of gluten insensitivity,” says John. “On one end, you have people with diagnosable celiac disease. On the other, people who are asymptomatic. Most of us are somewhere in between.” The medical community says that one out of every 100 people have the classic definition of celiac disease, but a University of Maryland study found that as many as 6 percent of Americans were negatively affected by gluten in some way. “I think it’s much more common than anybody could imagine,” says John.
And the ways in which gluten can affect us are varied as well. “I have patients coming to me with alopecia, insomnia, kids with ADHD,” says John, who began eating gluten-free out of curiosity, not because he was diagnosed with celiac disease, and found that his white blood cell count skyrocketed and his joint pain disappeared. “Some people get really hyper; others irritable, or chronically tired. There are studies showing that gluten can even impact juvenile idiopathic arthritis.” He encourages nearly everyone to go gluten-free for a month, and take notice of everything, from how well they sleep to how well they move.
John says the resistance among some doctors to prescribe gluten-free diets may be a result of the fact that most doctors don’t have training in nutrition, leading to the misconception that a gluten-free diet will be low in fiber or high in fat. In fact, he says, the best gluten-free diets are those made up of plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grains like quinoa and wild rice, and highly nutritive nuts, eggs, lean meat, and fish. “There is this notion that if you’re not eating gluten you’re somehow going to be at risk,” says John. “I think the exact opposite.” Others seem to be starting to agree.
The opinions reflected here are unique to individual faculty members and do not necessarily reflect Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health.