This blog is all about why gluten sensitivity, as in, why (and how) do we become gluten sensitive and why does it matter?
This is part 4 of a 4-part series of blogs on this topic, so check out What is gluten sensitivity?, Gluten sensitivity diagnosis, and How to live gluten-free for more information.
Why are so many people gluten sensitive?
I am often asked: why so many people are gluten sensitive? It seems like just a few years ago this was a relatively rare diagnosis. Also, why might someone who has tolerated gluten his or her entire life suddenly become gluten sensitive? The short answer is that right now we cannot be sure of the exact causes. Really, gluten sensitivity, like most modern health issues, is due to many causes that come together to cause illness. Here are a few of my own thoughts on why more and more people are gluten sensitive:
The most obvious answer is that we are getting better and better at recognizing and diagnosing gluten sensitivity. Awareness has skyrocketed, so more people are getting tested and the tests are getting better. For more on diagnosis, see my blog Gluten sensitivity diagnosis.
Higher gluten content in foods:
I’ve heard some talk that foods we eat today contain higher gluten content than those same foods would have 10, 20, 30 years ago. Also, I’ve heard that the gluten content of grains in Europe is much lower (possibly due to greater restrictions on genetic modification) than in North America. I’ve not been able to find any real evidence to support this.
Immune system imbalance:
In people with gluten sensitivity, the immune system is no longer tolerating gluten (which is a non-harmful substance) and makes an response that causes damage to tissues. But why? This is really part of a larger problem of immune system dysfunction that may lie at the root of many chronic diseases (allergies, asthma, cancer, autoimmune disease, etc). Our immune systems simple do not develop the same way that they used to. Possible causes?
- Suppression of normal immune responses like fevers prevents the normal learning and development of the immune system. For more on this subject, see my blog The truth about fever.
- Changes in management of minor illnesses (including the overuse of antibiotics) also impacts the normal development of the immune system. For more on this subject, see my blog Kids need to get sick.
- Finally, we simply do not get sick with the same things anymore! Our food and environment are highly sanitary, so we are exposed to many fewer pathogens and in North America, we are also far less likely than in the past to have parasitic infections. Again, this will effect the education of our immune systems.
Digestive problems can be caused by poor diet, stress, toxins in the environment, poor elimination function, medications/drugs, chronic inflammation, food sensitivities, and many more factors. Specifically, intestinal permeability (also known as “leaky gut”) could explain why we begin reacting to gluten and also the reaction to gluten can cause leaky gut, so this is a vicious cycle.
A simplified explanation of “leaky gut”:
- Junctions between cells lining the small intestine become permeable (due to factors listed above)
- This allows undigested food particles to enter bloodstream
- The immune system views these as “foreign” and creates immune response, causing inflammation and further damage
Why does gluten sensitivity matter?
My simple answer to this question is that in the search for the root cause behind digestive issues, gluten sensitivity can be a valuable piece of the puzzle to help patients heal. In the long-term and with a view to disease prevention, gluten sensitivity can help understand other chronic illnesses. Research is still developing in this area, but thus far there is already lots of evidence to link gluten sensitivity with many other serious illnesses.
Diseases associated with gluten sensitivity:
- Autoimmune disorders (rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, Sjogren’s syndrome, thyroid autoimmunity, and likely many more)
- Bone disease (Osteoporosis, osteopenia, kyphoscoliosis, fractures)
- Infertility or repeated miscarriages
- Addison’s disease
- Down syndrome
- Intestinal cancer or lymphoma
- Lactose intolerance
- Thyroid disease
- Diabetes type I
- Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia)
- Liver disease
I agree with your thoughts. I’d love to know where that comment about different gluten levels in European wheat stems from. I am an Australian naturopath and I have heard similar things here in Australia. I have also had patients say they don’t experience their symptoms when they are in Italy. Would be great to know the facts.
Hi Kaye, I have looked but never found a good source on this. This topic has also been discussed a lot among NDs and while we can speculate, I’m not sure anyone has hard data!