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  • Writer's pictureChalee Nyenhuis

Why Are So Many People Sensitive to Gluten Now?

It's hard to walk into an alternative medicine clinic or even health store now-a-days without at least one person trying to convince you to give up gluten. But is there evidence that their claims have merit? Let's explore that.

Gluten sensitivity and intolerance have become increasingly prevalent in recent years, with a significant rise in the number of people affected by celiac disease, wheat allergy, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). This phenomenon has led researchers to investigate the potential causes behind this surge in wheat and gluten-related disorders. Let’s explore the various factors that may contribute to the increased incidence of gluten sensitivity, including changes in environmental conditions, wheat grain alterations, gut health, and genetic predisposition.

Environmental Factors and Wheat Grain Alterations

Over the past century, environmental conditions and wheat grain alterations have played a role in shaping the composition of modern wheat varieties. Researchers at the Leibniz-Institute for Food Systems Biology and the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics and Crop Plant Research have conducted extensive studies to understand the impact of these factors on gluten sensitivity.

It has been speculated that modern wheat varieties contain more immunoreactive proteins, particularly gliadins, which are believed to trigger immune reactions in some individuals. However, the research conducted by Katharina Scherf and her team revealed that modern wheat varieties actually contain slightly less protein than older varieties. The gluten content, on the other hand, has remained relatively constant over the past 120 years, although the composition of the gluten has undergone slight changes. The proportion of gliadins, which are often viewed critically due to their potential immune reactivity, has decreased by approximately 18%, while the proportion of glutenins has increased by around 25%.

Interestingly, the researchers discovered that environmental conditions, such as precipitation during the harvest year, had a greater influence on protein composition than breeding-induced changes. Higher precipitation was associated with higher gluten content in the samples. These findings suggest that environmental factors play a significant role in shaping the protein composition of wheat, but there is no evidence to suggest that the immunoreactive potential of wheat has changed as a result of these factors.

Gut Health and Gluten Sensitivity

Another factor that may contribute to the increase in gluten sensitivity is the state of gut health. Dysbiosis, which refers to an imbalance in gut flora, has become more prevalent due to factors such as the overuse of antibiotics and consumption of food that the gut cannot properly digest. This imbalance can lead to increased permeability of the gut lining, allowing undigested gluten particles to enter the bloodstream and trigger immune responses.

Furthermore, it has been suggested that a clean and sterile environment, resulting from improved hygiene practices, may impact our immune system's ability to fend off harmless substances. This could potentially lead to an overreaction to gluten and other common allergens. The hypothesis is that our bodies are no longer exposed to as many pathogens and, as a consequence, our immune system becomes hypersensitive to substances that would typically be considered harmless.

Genetic Predisposition

Genetics also play a role in gluten sensitivity. It is estimated that approximately 1% of the adult population worldwide is affected by coeliac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by the ingestion of gluten. People with coeliac disease have specific genetic markers, such as the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes, which make them more susceptible to gluten-related health problems. Additionally, genetic factors may influence how individuals react to changes in wheat varieties and environmental conditions.

The Rise of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition in which individuals experience symptoms similar to those of coeliac disease but without the characteristic intestinal damage. The exact mechanisms behind NCGS are still not fully understood, but it is believed to involve a different immune response compared to coeliac disease. Some studies have suggested that NCGS accounts for approximately 6-8% of the population, based on anti-gliadin antibodies in blood tests.

The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 diseases that can be caused by eating gluten, including irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), inflammatory bowel disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. Gluten has also been linked to various mood and neurological disorders, such as anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, and nerve damage. However, further research is needed to establish the exact mechanisms behind these associations.

Lifestyle Factors and Gluten Sensitivity

Changes in lifestyle, including dietary habits, may also contribute to the rise in gluten sensitivity. Diets that are low in essential vitamins and minerals can interfere with the body's immune response and its ability to suppress immune cells. These diets may compromise the immune system's ability to handle gluten particles effectively, leading to increased sensitivity.

Moreover, the increased consumption of wheat-based products over the years may contribute to the higher incidence of gluten sensitivity. The introduction of wheat into Europe during the Middle Ages, coupled with the fact that 30% of people of European descent carry the gene for coeliac disease, suggests a genetic predisposition coupled with increased exposure to gluten-containing foods.

Let's Sum it Up!

The rise in gluten sensitivity and intolerance can be attributed to a combination of factors, including changes in environmental conditions, alterations in wheat grain composition, gut health issues, genetic predisposition and lifestyle factors. Further research is needed to fully understand the complex interactions between these factors and their impact on gluten-related disorders. In the meantime, individuals who suspect gluten sensitivity could do an elimination of gluten over the course of 6 weeks and take note as to the changes they feel. For instance, many of our patients who go through the 6 weeks will notice less gut issues, less joint pain and skin irritations such as eczema and psoriasis. At 4 Paths, we have a 6 week program that is centered around avoiding known irritants (including gluten) and helping the body to repair the gut lining and aid the liver in detoxification. We have seen incredible results with this “Repair and Clear” program. If you are interested in getting more information on this practitioner led program, please call us at 402-515-2412 for a consultation.

Chalee Nyenhuis

Clinic Director


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