Gluten-free diets have become all the rage in recent years. This is despite the fact, as TV comedian Jimmy Kimmel demonstrated back in May, most people don’t even know what gluten is. So, let’s start with Kimmel’s famous question. Gluten: What is it?
Gluten is a naturally occurring storage protein found in the seeds of certain grains such as wheat, barley and rye. As the term “storage” indicates, gluten serves as a reservoir of amino acids for the germinating grain seedling. Amino acids are the chemical building blocks for all proteins. Gluten is broken down into its amino acid components as the seed is germinating, and those amino acids are then reused to synthesize other proteins needed by the growing seedling.
From a human standpoint, gluten serves a very similar role. In addition to providing bread and other baked goods with their pleasing texture, the gluten in wheat flour is an important nutrient that, when broken down, provides amino acids for the synthesis of other proteins required by the human body.
I’ve been on a gluten-free diet for over seven years, but in my case it has nothing to do with a fad or fashionable food trend. I’ve been gluten-free because 11 years ago I came down with celiac disease, a serious autoimmune disease of the small intestine that gluten can cause in susceptible people. It has a genetic basis and can flare up any time in a person’s life, presumably induced by physical and/or psychological stress.
The lining of the human small intestine has many tiny finger-like projections called villi. Think of how a shag carpet looks, and this gives you an idea of how the lining of your small intestine looks. The villi greatly increase the surface area inside the small intestine, and this substantially enhances the absorption of nutrients. In people who have celiac disease, when gluten or a component of gluten binds to their villi, the body’s immune system recognizes the gluten-villi complexes as foreign entities and launches an autoimmune attack. This attack greatly damages the villi and the lining of the small intestine goes from looking like a shag carpet to resembling a smooth linoleum floor.
The serious damage to the small intestine causes it to become highly inflamed. A common test for the degree of inflammation in a person’s body is called erythrocyte (red blood cell) sedimentation rate, or “sed rate” for short. A healthy person’s sed rate should never exceed 20 mm/hour. Early in my struggles with celiac disease, and before I started heavy-duty steroid treatment, my sed rate was cruising along at 130 mm/hour. I also exhibited numerous immunological abnormalities, kidney problems, weight loss, severe fatigue, and other serious symptoms. Essentially, I was slowly starving. My small intestine was absorbing very few nutrients because it was badly damaged by the autoimmune attack.
It is now thought that approximately 1 in 133 people in Western nations are susceptible to or actually have celiac disease. In very recent years, the American medical establishment has become much more aware of the prevalence and severity of the disease. In my case, I went nearly five years without a diagnosis and ran through about 10 doctors while enduring many different tests trying to get one. At least one nurse, upon seeing my gaunt frame, asked if I had AIDS. Well, I was tested for AIDS, among many other things, but the test was negative. All the doctors could come up with is that I had some kind of mysterious autoimmune disorder.
Finally, I fired the nephrologist (kidney doctor) I had been seeing for several years and found a new one, Dr. Michael Linsey of Pasadena Nephrology Inc. After about 30 minutes of asking me questions, Dr. Linsey asked if I had ever been tested for celiac disease. “No,” I said. He then gave me a referral to have certain antibody tests performed. They came back positive for celiac disease. After that, he instructed me to have a particular analysis done on my DNA (remember, celiac disease has a genetic basis). The DNA test was also positive. Finally, Dr. Linsey ordered an endoscopic exam of my small intestine. Bingo!
Within just three months of being on a gluten-free diet, all of my abnormal markers returned to normal again and all my celiac disease symptoms had disappeared. I started gaining weight and feeling much more energetic. It was amazing. And basically all I had to do was eliminate bread, pasta and other wheat-containing items from my diet. There are still plenty of other foods a celiac can eat without harm: animal proteins, corn, rice, potatoes, nuts and all other fruits and vegetables.
If you think you might have celiac disease, get the tests done before going on a gluten-free diet. A definitive diagnosis will be important to you and your family members with whom you are genetically related.
John Grula, Ph.D., is affiliated with the Southern California Federation of Scientists.