Understanding Gluten Sensitivity

Digestion | | June 3, 2010 at 9:00 am
Photo by Kevin Lallier

Photo by Kevin Lallier.

Gluten sensitivity affects one third of the American population. These are people who have mild to moderate symptoms from eating the proteins found in wheat and other grains. Celiac Disease, the most extreme form of gluten sensitivity, affects 1% of the population. A recent study showed that people who are gluten sensitive and have been properly diagnosed could save 30% in their health care costs. Sadly, 99% of people with this condition are not aware of it. Understanding and treating the root cause of disease will save money in frequent trips to the doctor and unnecessary medications. It will also set you on a path to wellness.

You don’t have to have full-blown Celiac’s to have major health consequences from eating gluten. Last year, a large study showed increased death due to heart disease and cancers in people with gluten sensitivity. The numbers are shocking. For people with gluten sensitivity the risk of death was increased by 35%. For Celiacs and people with active inflammation in the gut the risk jumps to 72%. How can eating a seemingly wholesome food cause so much disease? To understand this, we need to understand how the digestive system interacts with the immune system:

Gut physiology
The intestines are where things are permitted into the bloodstream. Food, broken down into its nutrients is absorbed from the tube into the blood. This is a dangerous proposition. There could be bacteria or parasites or poisons in the things we eat. The immune system has outposts along this border and monitors the particles that are absorbed and mounts an immune response when dangerous substances are detected.

When activated, the immune system fights infections. Sometimes, an activated immune system will respond to food as if it’s a dangerous invader. Your genetics make you more or less vulnerable to certain food sensitivities. Genetics alone don’t determine whether or not you’ll be sensitive to gluten or other foods. There is often a triggering set of circumstances like an infection or nutrient deficiency that sets the immune system in motion.

Leaky gut
In the process of responding to dangerous bacteria, viruses, parasites or yeast, the immune response can destroy healthy tissue. The lining of the intestines will become red and inflamed and the barrier function is lost. Larger and larger particles are allowed into the bloodstream. Waste material can enter the bloodstream and cause symptoms all over the body: headaches, skin rashes, joint pain.

Triggering other food sensitivities
Over time, the constant activated immune response and leaky gut can cause new food sensitivities. I’ve seen it many times where people avoid what they know they’re reacting to, feel better for a short time, then start reacting to all the new foods they’re eating and their diet gets more and more restricted and the overall heath takes a downward spiral. Unless the barrier function in the digestive system is intact, healing cannot take place.

Some problems and sensitivities can resolve with the removal of the main food offender and time. For most people, though, the cause of digestive disease has not been identified and treated and they will need more thorough investigation and advanced healing protocols. It’s important to have support and an expert to help guide this process. The specifics need to be tailored to the individual.

Addressing the root cause of disease
Diseases caused by gluten sensitivity are completely curable. Some diseases like anemia and osteoporosis are obviously related to malabsorption. Some diseases like Lupus and Multiple Sclerosis involve a complex interplay of the immune system. Others involve an even more complex cascade of hormones and neurotransmitters. Gluten sensitivity is a condition that can affect any system in the body. Instead of managing and treating various conditions individually, directing efforts and resources to the root cause of the problem can allow for optimal wellness.

Safe foods:

  • Buckwheat
  • Rice
  • Corn
  • Quinoa
  • Millet
  • Amaranth
  • Potatoes
  • Gluten-free oats
  • Garbanzo flour
  • Tapioca
  • Teff

Author and resident gluten-free living expert Dr. Misty White is in private practice in Milwaukie, Oregon at Northwest Natural Medicine. She is also an adjunct clinical faculty member, training the physicians of the future at the National College of Natural Medicine.

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  1. Sami says:


    Very good job summarizing the gluten sensitivity issue. However, I have couple questions and I’d like to hear your take on them:

    1) What do you make of lectins? In this paper by Loren Cordain lectins are argued to cause a host of autoimmune and other problems (related to leaky gut), and lectins are also said to be in the safe foods listed above, such as rice, oats and corn: http://www.direct-ms.org/pdf/EvolutionPaleolithic/Cereal%20Sword.pdf

    Here is another article where lectins are actually said to cause celiac disease: http://www.fourhourworkweek.com/blog/2010/09/19/paleo-diet-solution/

    2) Robb Wolf of the Paleo Solution fame has referred to studies where some people had similar response as in celiac disease, but instead of gluten it was triggered by eating rice. Any thoughts on this? Other than if indeed celiac disease is caused by lectins and not just gluten, rice does have lectins in it which would explain the whole thing.

    3) What do you make of Quinoa? Apparently it does not contain glutein or lectins, but here’s a quote from the aforementioned article: “Quinoa is botanically not a grain, but because it has evolved in a similar biological niche, Quinoa has similar properties to grains, including chemical defense systems that irritate the gut. In the case of Quinoa, it contains soap-like molecules called saponins. Unlike gluten, which attaches to a carrier molecule in the intestines, saponins simply punch holes in the membranes of the microvilli cells.”


  2. Recent research has indicated that the prevalence of celiac disease in Caucasian populations is .5%-1%. -undiagnosed people can be suffering all kinds of complications. Testing can be confusing with home test kits available online that may not be highly sensitive.

    I can’t find any studies that specifically discuss the issue of gluten sensitivity prevalence. Would you mind sharing your source?