Gluten-Free for All?

Posted on February 19th, 2013 by in Nutrition, Studies, News, and Trends

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.



8 Responses to “Gluten-Free for All?”

  1. Claudia Jacobs February 19, 2013 10:32 am #

    I was always on antibiotics & seeing me doctor. They had no idea why I was constantly sick with either tonsillitis, sinus infection, low energy & joint pain. Actually had my tonsils removed in my late 40’s (horrific!). Met with my holistic nutritionist who told me I have a gluten sensitivity. I thought this was a fate worse than death since I am Italian. Nope. It feels wonderful not to feel sick. If I stray I pay & have the reminder of how bad I constantly felt in the pas. I love being healthy & not seeing my doctor except for my annual checkup. Best thing I ever did.

    • KripaluEditor February 19, 2013 10:35 am #

      Hi Claudia,
      Thanks for sharing your experience! It seems many have similar stories.
      Glad to hear you are well!
      —Kim from Kripalu

    • thegoodwitch February 19, 2013 4:29 pm #

      Claudia, going gluten free freed me of chronic sinus infections as well as tonsil stones, which I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I love your phrase ‘if I stray I pay’. No more straying for me!

  2. BreNda Tewell Mucha February 19, 2013 11:36 am #

    “try it for a month”. That is exactly what I did, 16 months ago. Having Multiple Sclerosis, I blamed every single ache and pain on the disease. For 10 plus years I took a seizure medication for a symptom no DR. could figure out what was causing it. ( A nerve in the back of my eye would send my eye into spasms and I couldnt see). I had a close relationship with my seizure medication, it was in my pocket or purse at all times. Taking a pill every 3 hours is now a thing of my past, thanks to kissing the gluten good-bye!!!

    • KripaluEditor February 19, 2013 11:59 am #

      Hi Brenda,
      What a powerful experience! I am so glad to hear you are free from the discomfort!
      Thanks so much for sharing this,
      —Kim from Kripalu

  3. Julie February 19, 2013 3:25 pm #

    What about wheat’s affect on asthma? I was diagnosed with asthma as an adult and struggled to find – and eliminate – triggers so I wouldn’t have to be so reliant on medication. An acupuncturist suggested evaluating my diet, so I first eliminated dairy products (not much response) and then wheat. The difference was striking. Now, if I happen to eat something with wheat in it, I immediately feel my breathing becomes tense and tight; and once I had to use my rescue inhaler. I’ve been off wheat for a year now and even my asthma doctor has noticed huge improvements in my breathing tests. I don’t think I’ll ever return to eating wheat again, but I would be curious to hear from others like me with similar response/experience.

  4. Kim February 19, 2013 7:12 pm #

    What about the thyroid? I haven been diagnosed with Graves Disease and now Hashimoto’s! I am not on any medication but wonder if going gluten free would help?

    • KripaluEditor February 19, 2013 9:21 pm #

      HI Kim – I touched base with John Bagnulo, the PhD featured in this post, and he responded. See below!
      Best to you,
      -Kim from Kripalu

      You can absolutely go gluten-free with the Hashimoto’s. It is strongly associated with both celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Most autoimmune conditions are now being closely associated and there is a growing body of evidence that the best way to reduce the symptoms or eliminate them completely is by eliminating gluten. It may take awhile for the antibodies to drop off but I am confident that they will.

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