Celiac disease made national news when a study revealed the disease is four times more common now than it was in the 1950s. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic analyzed frozen blood samples from Air Force personnel collected between 1948 and 1954, and compared them to recent samples. Not only was the rate of Celiac disease in the modern subjects more than four times higher, but the rate of death among the Air Force personnel with undiagnosed Celiac disease was also four times higher than those who had tested negative. In other words, the researchers concluded, “silent” Celiac disease quadruples your risk of death.
The fact that a major newswire picked up the story means the gluten-free diet is rapidly losing its association with the zealous and the sickly. As gluten intolerance goes mainstream, it opens the doorway for the nutritional therapy practitioner to educate a newly opened mind. Who knew Grandma could ever be open to information about a gluten-free diet after reading the news online? It’s important to be armed with a few facts when questions or misconceptions about Celiac disease arise.
Celiac Disease Is Not New
The average person thinks Celiac disease is a modern malady, but in fact it’s quite ancient. After all, the word Celiac was coined by a Greek physician in the second century AD, and has piqued medical interest on and off throughout the centuries, especially in the last decade.
Celiac disease really began with the introduction of grain, as humans transitioned from a hunter-gatherer diet to an agricultural diet, experiencing an increase in disease as a result.
As nutritional researcher Weston Price, DDS discovered in his world travels, early humans mitigated the deleterious effects of gluten by rendering the grain more digestible through sprouting and fermenting it. Also, our ancestors most likely could better tolerate this ancient grain when properly prepared, as they did not weather nearly the immune burdens we do today.
The Rise in Celiac Disease — A Look at the Autoimmune Epidemics
Today, however, we cannot get through one day without enduring some assault to our physiology, whether it is environmental, dietary, or stress-related. It’s no wonder that an already compromised food, such as a gluten, can so easily become the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back.
When pondering the four-fold increase of Celiac disease in the last 50 years, it’s important to remember that it is an autoimmune disease, and that autoimmune diseases have mushroomed in recent years. As Donna Jackson Nakazawa illustrates in her book The Autoimmune Epidemic (Touchstone Books, 2008), top medical journals have reported rising rates of numerous autoimmune diseases around the world in the last 15 years. Rates of Type I diabetes have increased fivefold in the last 40 years, and for children four and under, it’s increasing 6 percent a year. It’s estimated that one in five people in the United States suffer from an autoimmune disease, the majority of them women.
Nakazawa presciently shuns the media’s attraction to the “hygiene hypothesis,” the pat notion that we are getting sicker because we are too clean, as a cause for autoimmune disease—true to form, the Reuters story mentioned earlier jumped right to this explanation. Instead, she points to the sea of toxins that we breathe, ingest, and absorb every day. In random samplings, researchers have found more than 100 highly toxic chemicals in people’s blood and urine, and 287 pollutants in the fetal-cord blood of newborns. Studies show that mice and rats subjected to low but chronic levels of environmental toxins are more likely to develop autoimmune diseases and impaired immune development. Worst affected are people working directly with pesticides, textiles, solvents, benzene, asbestos, and other toxic compounds, as they are more likely to develop and die from autoimmune diseases than those who don’t.
Add to this the myriad and numerous chemicals that can be found in virtually every box, bag, bottle and tub in your local grocery store, invisible but ever present electromagnetic frequencies, the stress of being a modern American, and it becomes obvious we are overburdened. “Rising levels of autoimmune disease may well prove to be the next environmental disaster,” writes Nakazawa in a Washington Post story (Diseases Like Mine are a Growing Hazard, March 16, 2008). “Only in this case, the changes taking place degree by degree are in the interior landscapes of our bodies.”
One would think, given the statistics and the fact that our children are most grievously affected (Hello? Autism?), that the public health response would be equally significant. Autoimmune diseases affect about 24 million people. However, as Nakazawa shows, the National Institute of Health spent $591 million in autoimmune research in 2003, compared to $5 billion in research for cancer, which affects 9 million people. Likewise, the NIH budget for cardiovascular disease, which affects 22 million, is four times that of autoimmune disease.
Celiac Disease and Sugar
As detailed in the book Why Do I Still Have Thyroid Symptoms When My Lab Tests Are Normal? by Datis Kharrazian, DHSc, DC, MNeuroSci, a sugar-laden, high-carbohydrate diet is another instigating factor for autoimmune disease, including Celiac disease. A high-carb diet unleashes a relentless and rotating barrage of sugar, then insulin, into the bloodstream. This keeps the body in a state of alarm, slowly eroding hormonal balance, rapidly degenerating brain tissue, creating nutritional deficiencies, causing gut infections and severely weakening and dysregulating the immune system. In other words, it’s a perfect setup for developing an autoimmune disease.
Another consequence of the high-carb diet is the risk for developing Candida overgrowth, a yeast infection of the body. Research has shown that protein sequences in Candida cells and gliadin (the offending part of gluten) are virtually identical, and that a Candida overgrowth can trigger Celiac disease.
The Way Wheat Was
Also guilty of triggering Celiac disease or a gluten intolerance is wheat itself, and, more importantly, what’s become of it over the years. The wheat our ancestors ate was a radically different grain compared to what Americans consume today. It has long been hybridized, especially during the last 50 years, to increase yields, cultivation and performance, but not digestion or nutritional value.
Spurred on by the grain-based USDA Food Pyramid, wheat is also subsidized by the government. This makes it cheap and therefore a popular ingredient in virtually every processed food on the shelves (although the growing popularity of gluten-free foods is slowly changing that). Add to this the way wheat is stored in the United States — in large silos for long periods of time where molds and fungi grow — and you have yet another potential trigger for autoimmune disease. Studies are increasingly showing a link between gluten (and, in some studies, casein) and autoimmune disease, particularly Hashimoto’s disease.
When it comes to Celiac disease and most all autoimmune diseases, a vitamin D deficiency is often a culprit. The link between a vitamin D deficiency and autoimmune disease is well documented, and as NTPs have learned, the modern diet is woefully deficient in this vital nutrient. Adding to the problem is the fact that many people with autoimmune disease also have a genetic disorder that prevents them from absorbing enough vitamin D. Therefore, they need higher than average intake and are more susceptible to deficiencies.
Gut infections, lack of sunlight, obesity, and old age are just a few of the factors that lead to a vitamin D deficiency. The Vitamin D council recommends one maintain a serum 25 (OH) vitamin D level of between 50 – 80 ng/mL (stay toward the high end if you have an autoimmune disease), supplement with at least 5,000 IU a day of cholecalciferol for those who avoid the sun, and test regularly. The further north one lives, or the darker the skin, the greater the need for vitamin D.
An emulsified form of vitamin D is best for optimal absorption and to prevent toxicity. One way to keep tabs on your vitamin D levels and help a good cause is to join the Grassroots Health Vitamin D Action study (www.grassrootshealth.net). They send you an at-home vitamin D test kit every six months for $60 per test, and follow D levels and lifestyles of people around the world with the aim of addressing the vitamin D deficiency epidemic.
You Teach, You Teach, You Teach
With the Reuters story hitting the mainstream, as well as the release of a new book about Celiac disease by View host Elizabeth Hasselbeck, “gluten-free diet” is destined to become a household term. Researchers are already fast at work developing a pharmaceutical drug that would allow persons with Celiac disease to safely eat gluten. This might be good news for the acutely sensitive Celiac sufferer, but as usual, it’s attempting to repair the hole in the dike with a band- aid.
Celiac disease and gluten intolerance are not the disease so much as the symptoms of a larger disease affecting us all, even those who enjoy their whole-wheat toast with nary a symptom. One person gets Celiac disease, while the next contracts a debilitating autoimmune condition that causes paralysis.
In the end, such autoimmune maladies are warning flags that we are creating a world and a way of life less able to support human life with every passing day. Gluten intolerance is simply a metaphor for an intolerance of a civilization that was built on the cultivation of wheat. And think about autoimmune disease: it is the body attacking and destroying the self. Is that not an apt metaphor for our relationship to the planet?
There is no good in “stressing out” about our predicament. After all, stress is the most potent toxin of them all, and anyone with an autoimmune condition will tell you their condition gets worse when they’re under a lot of stress. But if we wish to find peace from the environmental disaster that plagues the inner landscape of so many, then it’s important to keep Celiac disease and other autoimmune diseases in perspective — they are reflections of the planet, telling their story through our bodies.
Elaine Fawcett, MJ, NTP, is a health writer living in Aurora, Oregon. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.