Gluten Sensitivity – Is It Real?

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wheat1I recently listened to Alan Levinovitz speak about his new book, The Gluten Lie and Other Myths About What You Eat. The “gluten lie” part of the title intrigued me since I have had a few gluten revelations of my own this summer.

As some of you know, my 8 year old son and I are gluten-free. Zach for about 5 years now and myself for about two years. There are definite symptoms we get when we eat gluten and it’s the reason we stay away from it. For Zach, we discovered it was a problem after a few dinners at Panara Bread, where he would eat a whole grain roll with his soup. It took a while to see the connection but invariably, when he ate wheat, the next day he had an emotional melt down. He is typically a pretty emotionally balanced child, but after a high dose of gluten he would have a tantrum and/or an uncontrollable cry the next day.

For me, the symptoms were not so noticeable. I stopped eating gluten more in solidarity for Zach, especially as he got older. However, on the occasion that I did “get glutened” I could feel it both after the meal and the next day. After a meal with gluten, I get extremely tired; the next day, I have a really hard time getting out of bed. (I describe this in more detail in a previous blog post.) These are symptoms that I did not know I had until after I stopped eating gluten.

There are people who have Celiac Disease and their bodies cannot tolerate gluten at all, getting extremely ill when they are exposed to gluten. There are also people, like Zach and myself, who are gluten sensitive. But, why is it that everyone now seems to be sensitive to gluten? Well, one of Alan Levinovitz’s explanations is that our minds start playing tricks on us. The typical person might hear about the many dangers of gluten and suddenly start relating all their health issues to this one item. (This is similar to medical students, who often start experiencing the same symptoms they are studying.) Our minds and our thoughts are powerful: if you truly think you will feel better by removing gluten, you just might (even for a while), although gluten might not be the root problem.

Other Gluten-related Factors
My personal theory is that there are other factors involved. In addition to the gluten itself, I believe it is also the long-term hybridization of wheat and the many pesticides used when farming the wheat that are contributing to the problem.

  • Hybridization – Wheat is not technically considered genetically modified (GM) like some other crops, however, it has been hybridized and modified over so many years that it is much different than the wheat God first created. Plant breeders have worked to produce wheat varieties that provide higher yields and disease resistance. Much of the wheat in the United States has also been bred to produce more gluten. These newer breeds of wheat may technically still be wheat, but it is wheat that our bodies are not used to digesting.
  • Pesticides – Conventional farmers use pesticides on wheat (and other grain) crops. In the United States, the most alarming use of pesticides is directly before harvesting and again after harvesting. It has been common for years to use pesticides during the growing process. However, for the past 15 years or so, the toxic pesticide glyphosate (RoundUp) is purposely used 7 to 10 days before harvesting the wheat in order to obtain a higher yield, drying up the crop for easier harvesting. That means there is a high concentration of pesticide directly on the mature wheat kernels that are harvested. Post harvest, both fungicides and insecticides are used to keep the grain free of mold and insects until it is time for processing. All of these directly applied pesticides end up accumulating in your body when you eat the wheat.

So, is it only about the gluten? No. Our bodies are also being bombarded with grains that are no longer in their original form and grains that are full of pesticides.

My Personal Gluten Revelations
This summer I had two discoveries of my own that helped solidify my gluten sensitivity theory. Discoveries that proved that, at least for me and my son, it is not gluten alone that is causing the problem.

Discovery #1  My son and I can eat gluten products in Europe and not feel its affects. 

My family went to the Netherlands for a big family reunion this summer. I had heard over the years, from a number of people, that those with gluten sensitivities can eat grains containing gluten in Europe without consequence. I have always been curious about this phenomenon, so we decided to put it to the test.

Zach and I ate all sorts of bread and other gluten-containing products – sometimes eating bread for both breakfast and lunch. Our last weekend in Europe was in Paris, so we ate all sorts of Parisian breads and pastries too. Yum! It was hard to believe, but we did not once feel the affects of gluten like we do when we eat it in the United States. (I did gain some weight, though, since I was not used to eating so many bread products!)

Many European countries have stricter pesticide requirements. Genetically modified (GM) foods are also restricted in certain European countries and have to be labeled on packaged foods. Based on our reaction alone, the wheat-based products in Europe have to be different from those in the United States.

Discovery #2  My son and I can eat baked goods made from Einkorn flour. 

This was discovered on another trip this summer, during my annual “girls weekend” with a group of friends. One of my very health-minded friends had recently discovered einkorn flour, made from an ancient wheat grain. She too is gluten sensitive, yet she has been able to eat einkorn without the typical gluten reaction and actually feels better when she eats it in moderation.

After doing more research I have found the einkorn is currently the only known source of wheat that has not been hybridized. It is truly an ancient grain that dates back thousands of years. There are other sources of wheat considered “heritage” or “heirloom” but when their history is tracked, they only date back a few centuries. For example, the heirloom wheat called Red Fife is a descendant of spelt, which is a grain that often causes gluten sensitivity when eaten.

Einkorn is truly different. My first taste of einkorn was in the form of homemade biscuits that same weekend, something I have not eaten in years. Like my friend, I too was free of the typical gluten-causing reaction. I came home with a bag of the einkorn flour and have been making biscuits on a weekly basis for my family. (I have also recently discovered a local source for sourdough einkorn bread.)

Moving Forward With or Without Gluten
So, fast forward a month or so, and these two discoveries let me to listen to Alan Levinovitz’s interview. Maybe he is right and too many people are getting scared into having a gluten sensitivity. He believes the studies on gluten are inconclusive because our bodies are complex and you can’t control all the possible variables, both food and environmentally related, that could also be factors in people’s health improvement during the studies.

From my personal and professional experience, however, I can tell you that gluten sensitivity is real. Whether it is from the highly-glutened grains, the high use of pesticides on these grains, or a combination of both, wheat and other gluten containing grains can affect your health, especially here in the United States. I have experienced it first hand and see it with my clients and from reports of many other practitioners around the country. Removing gluten from your diet, even temporarily while you work on a particular health issue, can be extremely healing. In fact, I often suggest a gluten-free diet with my clients because I see the many positive results when they do.

In the United States, my son and I cannot tolerate typical gluten products such as wheat, barley, rye, etc. Now that we are home, we stick to our gluten-free eating with the exception of the once a week use of einkorn which has yet to give us a problem. Like my friend, I think I also feel better with this ancient wheat-based grain in my diet. (I would not recommend it for those with Celiac Disease since it still contains gluten! And, don’t over use it if your are gluten sensitive either, since too much of anything can cause a reaction if over used long-term.)

The bottom line is that each of us is different and what works for one does not always work for another. I do believe a proper gluten-free diet is healing for many, but there are other factors that must also be considered: other food sensitivities, depletion of nutrients, gut infections, stress, and other lifestyle obstacles. . . . BioIndividual Nutrition (as explained here) is key. Working with food sensitivities and nutritional deficiencies is one of the things we do at Life Design for Health. Since each of us is unique, finding what works specifically for you is important.

NOTE: Life Design for Health now offers customized eating plans and recipes using Victus Health software. After we help you determine the foods necessary to optimize your health, we can provide you with access to a recipe database customized to your specific requirements and foods. Contact me for more information.

This article was written by Sharon Harmon, founder of Life Design for Health. She has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health. Please contact her if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information in her blog articles and on her website.

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