Many people have given up eating bread and pasta because their bodies are either sensitive to the gluten in wheat flour or they have full-blown celiac disease. What most people don’t realize is that gluten can actually cause as many as 55 other diseases, reports the New England Journal of Medicine. In honor of Gluten-Free Diet Awareness Month, we thought it would be useful to list 10 of the most common diseases associated with eating gluten.
But first, what is gluten and why does it make people sick?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains, including oats, rye, spelt, kamut, barley and triticale. It also lurks in obvious foods, like bread, pizza crust, pasta and rolls. But it’s also often hidden in processed foods and items like beer, salad dressing, soup mixes and soy sauce.
“Gluten sensitivity is actually an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation throughout the body, with wide-ranging effects across all organ systems including your brain, heart, joints, digestive tract and more,” explainss Dr. Mark Hyman on his wellness blog. Here are some of the diseases it may cause or worsen.
1) Osteoporosis – Osteoporosis is a weakening of the bones. It affects 20 million people worldwide and is responsible for over 1 million fractures a year. Many people are advised to increase their calcium intake as a way to build and strengthen their bones. But the staff at the HealthNOW clinic in California actually recommend removing dairy products (though not leafy green vegetables, as the bones still need calcium) and gluten, too. “Having worked with patients for two decades, we have found that bone density often improves on a gluten-free diet,” they report here. “Osteoporosis is a debilitating disease. If a dietary change makes an improvement, it should be utilized in all who are affected.”
2) Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)- IBS is a chronic gastrointestinal disorder that affects 7-20 percent of all Americans. It’s marked by recurrent stomachaches or discomfort for at least three days per month, plus diarrhea, constipation or a mixture of both. There is some overlap between people suffering from celiac disease and those who have IBS. A study reported by The National Institutes of Health noted that after 6 months of a gluten-free diet, a significant percentage of patients suffering from IBS improved. “It is becoming increasingly clear that there are patients in whom gastrointestinal and nongastrointestinal symptoms develop following the ingestion of wheat,” the research indicated. NIH recommends that patients consult with their physicians to determine whether and when gluten should be eliminated or introduced in their diets if they suffer from IBS.
3) Anemia – Anemia results from either a decrease in the size or number of red blood cells or a decrease in the amount of hemoglobin, the red pigment in these cells. Red blood cells are important because they deliver oxygen to our organs. A shortage of either red blood cells or hemoglobin deprives our organs of the oxygen they need to function properly. The most common causes of anemia are a lack of iron, folate or vitamin B12 in the body, reports Gluten.org. Iron and folate deficiencies are among the most common signs of celiac disease because these nutrients are absorbed in the upper parts of the small intestine where damage can occur in the early stages of celiac disease. “Once a person diagnosed with celiac disease has begun a gluten-free diet, the small intestine will begin to heal and allow nutrients to be absorbed.”
4) Malnutrition - The lining of your small intestine is made up of something called intestinal villi. These are tiny, hairlike tentacles that help absorb nutrients from food. When someone who has celiac disease consumes foods containing gluten, the body reacts by attacking the intestinal villi. Eventually, those tiny tentacles can be completely flattened so they can’t absorb nutrients. “It doesn’t matter how well you eat — if your villi have been destroyed by untreated celiac disease you’re almost certain to be malnourished,” CeliacDisease.com says.
5) Canker sores – There is a lot of anecdotal evidence linking canker sores, painful blisters on the inside of the lips and cheeks, to gluten. This study done at the Iran University of Medical Sciences in Tehran, found what they called a “significant minority” of patients who suffered from both gluten sensitivity and canker sores.
6) Rheumatoid arthritis - It’s not clear if gluten can cause arthritis, but it could make it worse. “In some people,” says Alessio Fasano, MD, who directs the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital, “the immune system sees gluten as the enemy and will unleash weapons to attack it, causing inflammation in the intestines as well as in other organs and tissues.” Inflammation outside the gut is especially likely to affect the joints. Some doctors report that their rheumatoid arthritis patients who are sensitive to gluten notice less joint pain when they don’t eat it.
7) Depression – A study reported on the National Institutes of Health website found that 90 percent of the subjects studied reported feeling more depressed while eating gluten compared to a placebo. Scientists speculated that eating gluten could deplete the study participants’ serotonin levels, leading to feelings of depression. Interestingly, many of the subjects who stopped eating gluten were in better spirits, even if their digestive upsets continued.
8) Multiple sclerosis – Gluten doesn’t cause multiple sclerosis, but not eating it could make you feel better if you suffer from MS. A study in BMC Neurology found a higher incidence of gluten intolerance in MS patients than in the general population. You may want to limit or eliminate gluten from your diet if you have MS and see if your health improves.
9) Dermatitis – Intense itching, a burning sensation and clusters of small blisters on your elbows, knees, buttocks, back or scalp may indicate that you should not be eating gluten. However, depending on how severe your gluten intolerance is, and especially if you have Celiac disease, you may also need to take medication. See a dermatologist if blisters and itchy, painful rashes develop.
10) Asthma – Like with MS, gluten won’t cause asthma—but it could trigger an asthmatic reaction. The Asthma and Allergy Foundation includes wheat allergy on its list of issues that could make asthma worse. The EattoBreathe blog reports that, with about half of all asthmatics allergic to one food or another, there is a chance that if you have asthma, you could be gluten intolerant. If you notice difficulty breathing after you consume bread, pasta, pizza or other foods containing gluten, switch to a gluten-free diet.
What should you do if you think you may be gluten intolerant? Dr. Hyman recommends eliminating all gluten from your diet for 2-4 weeks. That means no bread crumbs, no processed foods that contain gluten and no soup mixes, salad dressings, even Play Doh. After your elimination period, introduce gluten slowly and see what happens. If you feel bad at all, he recommends staying off gluten permanently.
You can also get a blood test to determine if you have gluten intolerance or something more serious, like full-blown celiac disease. Talk with your family physician about your ailments and whether a blood test is necessary to help you pinpoint your problem.
Thanks for sharing this post with others who need to know how gluten could be affecting their health! Please share other recommendations and insights you have about gluten.