Gluten

Food is not benign! It is the most powerful, chemically active material that we routinely put into our bodies, that is, the biochemical system upon which rides our consciousness order. In fact, all food contains a quantity of risk: just look at the size and function of the liver to prove that.

This essay could go from here in many directions; for example, to the chips and energy drinks that so many, especially the young, abuse themselves with or to the preparations that are used to create eating addictions, but this is about a personal concern suddenly turned timeless and potentially devastating.

Someone dear to me has had continuing depressive symptoms (and I have dabbled in the depression waters for my knowing life). He has tried diet related ameliorators: reducing pesticide in take; getting adequate and balanced amounts of essential amino acids, vitamins and micronutrients; generally recognizing the critical role of intake.

My discussions with him had begun to move more and more often in the pharmacological direction, a “solution” we agreed that was like using a mallet to repair a fine Swiss chronograph. But we had never seriously discussed gluten.

Of course, gluten and celiac disease had come up, but it somehow didn’t seem directly relevant to symptoms of neurotransmitters. However, as I bumped into more and more references to gluten digestion issues, I decided to just stop eating gluten as a self-test before I offered this as a serious option for my son.

I have for many years kept track of my calorie budget and general diet (see first sentence!). When I stopped eating foods containing gluten I replaced (or more than replaced) the calories with other foods (e.g., avocado for bread in some circumstances). And yet, in the first 10 days I lost 7 pounds. Now those who know basic metabolism realize that 7 pounds of fat represents over 25,000 calories and at 2000 calories a day, even if I ate nothing, I would only use up about 6 pounds of fat; ergo, the weight loss was from water, more precisely, edema; and even more precisely, the edema of an inflammatory response to gluten was the most likely reason.

I was amazed. As time passed my energy level increased. Walking up steep hills, especially carrying weight, had become more and more taxing for me over the years; I had given this to my age. But, even 3 weeks into the diet change I noticed a reliable difference. And then I began to notice a change in mood. I would call it an improvement certainly, though more correctly it was a smoothing out.

About a month into gluten-free my car decided to malfunction many miles away from what passes here for civilization; this after I had been walking for some time in the high desert hills. My only choices were to stay overnight or to walk out in the deep dusk and dark. I walked out carrying my camera gear – 2½ hours before a road and a car kindly saved me. But I was fine and fully prepared to walk the next 8 miles to home. This would not have been my condition the month before. My interest was fully piqued.

Gluten: “Wheat gluten was traditionally classified into gliadin and glutenin based upon solubility in aqueous alcohol. Gliadins were thought to be responsible for precipitating coeliac disease; glutenins were thought probably to be nontoxic. More recent classification, according to primary amino acid structure, reveals not only great heterogeneity but also similarities between different gliadin and glutenin proteins. Peptides derived from both groups are immunostimulatory in coeliac disease and it is highly probable that glutenin proteins are therefore toxic. Attempts to breed wheat with satisfactory baking properties tolerated by coeliac patients will be very difficult.” (P. D. Howdle, St James’s University Hospital, Leeds, UK.)

This is a stark statement.

Gluten is a water insoluble protein complex found in the family of the grasses; it seems that its properties are useful in protecting seeds in dry conditions. Thus, unlike many of the plant-made chemicals that are toxic in foods as a form of protection from predation, gluten’s consequences come from the unfamiliarity of the protein to the human digestive system, at least, the unfamiliarity of the Caucasian digestive system.1 In the most extreme form, celiac disease (US spelling), symptoms are dramatic, though often misdiagnosed. But what interested me were the less intense consequences.

Humans have been eating grass-based foods as a major and continuous part of their diet for only about 8 to 10 thousand years. And even then it is only in very local regions that grains have been primary for that long. Most of the world has only been grain-fed for less than a third of that time. Our digestive system and the enzymes that are its tools have been evolving to a reasonably consistent diet for millions of years. Prior to grains, the great change for our Genus was the addition of meat and animal fat in increasing amounts over the last 2½ to 2 million years. The jump to grains has been dramatic and rapid – far too rapid to allow for digestive processes to adapt fully (or even at all) to new proteins.

The consequence is that gluten can only be partially digested. This is especially true for those with celiac disease. It is now understood that their bodies treat certain of the peptide pieces (break-down products of the partial digestion of a protein) as they would viruses and react by killing their own intestinal lining cells. Some of these peptides get into the blood stream and are attacked at other places in the body resulting in auto-immune disease symptoms.

But what if no one, no human digestive system, can fully cope with gluten? The numbers are interesting: about 1 in 200 Caucasians are said to have celiac symptoms. It has also been suggested that only about one in 50 cases are correctly diagnosed. As I think through the numbers that would mean that about 1 in 4 are actually having some symptoms of gluten digestion insufficiency. And then add in my experience. I have had, in any one moment, no set of symptoms that would point to a ‘condition’ worthy of attention, but looking over my years a number of accepted, and therefore, unexplained concerns fit neatly into a gluten response model. I have been vital all my life, mountain climbing, pulling 3 day study sessions in college, seeming strong and effective. Yet, as I aged into the accepted declines, I discover that most likely I have been running my whole life with a sea anchor deployed.

What would happen to the human condition if the world went off gluten? What if almost everyone is being diminished to some degree by an inflammatory response to a food that they cannot fully digest because the food is too new in our dietary repertoire?

My sons are taking this seriously with what seem, to this point, to be good results, but what about the others that we know about, the 50 undiagnosed (crazy word for being poisoned by your food) for every one who is? And if we find that the consequences are more wide reaching, can we eliminate gluten from our food supply (reducing is not an option, it is all or none in most cases)?

It is obvious that the “gluten interests” would fight this even being considered, would fight accurate information getting to the public. And since gluten carrying grains are now half or more of the world’s food supply and since world agriculture is devoted to these grains, it would also be effectively impossible, even if the world were to accept that gluten was a serious health issue. For the moment then, I will remain on a gluten free diet and suggest to others that they give it a try.

  1. No blatant racism here: the research has been done on mostly those of European descent and such subtleties of physiology should not be thoughtlessly generalized. Similar frequencies are suspected in other populations. []
James Keye is the nom de plume of a biologist and psychologist who after discovering a mismatch between academe and himself went into private business for many years. His whole post-pubescent life has been focused on understanding at both the intellectual and personal levels what it is to be of the human species; he claims some success. Email him at: jkeye1632@gmail.com. Read other articles by James, or visit James's website.

16 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Mike Hunt said on October 5th, 2009 at 10:01am #

    Anecdotal evidence is NOT scientific evidence.

  2. maien said on October 5th, 2009 at 11:32am #

    Mike,

    often, the science is avoided very purposefully. The results perhaps may impact just too many corporate interests. Alternative health professionals would have a lot more to say… if their information would/could make profits for the owners of the food system. You know, the money guys who can make changes. But hey, why change something when ‘wonderful’ profits are rolling in, by just leaving things, the way they are. The world is over-populated, isn’t it. Sick, tired people who have been taught that they are “getting old” cause a lot less trouble than healthy vibrant people, who have the time and energy to ask questions.

  3. Mulga Mumblebrain said on October 5th, 2009 at 4:53pm #

    maien has it. In the totalitarian market absolutist global state, profit is the supreme good. Gluten could be as toxic as asbestos, for example, and it would be defended to the death by vested economic interests and their paid propaganda liars, as surely as was asbestos, tobacco and, today, carbon nano-tubes, which almost certainly will cause disease akin to those inflicted by asbestos. Only if we replace market capitalism with a system that values human welfare, equality and ecological sustainability as the highest imperatives will we survive as a species and individuals, let alone thrive. Imagine the world we could confect if human potential was properly realised, if nurturing behaviour was universal rather than crass exploitation, and if conviviality and amity replaced competition and venal self-interest. We have, I calculate, one chance in a hundred of pulling it off.

  4. thecelt said on October 5th, 2009 at 7:19pm #

    I Agree with Mike, Anecdotal evidence is not scientific. Yes, I see, you have convinced yourself, without clinical evidence, that you have celiac disease. I thought I did too, once, and even cut out gluten completley. Not satisfied with guesses, and went through the unfortunate experiences of both a colonoscopy and endoscopy and guess what….No Celiac.. whatsoever. My intestinal cillia were healthy as could be…despite serious GI problems. The lesson here….just because you have convinced yourself, doesnt make it SO! The crazy ass part of your article comes when you talk about making a gluten free world, which is frankly insulting, considering billions not only enjoy grain based diets but indeed, depend on them for survival. To then turn around and suggest that your gluten free fantasy world wouldnt come to pass because of the nefarious Gluten Interests, who diabollically plot to poison the worlds caucasians, the most oppressed minority on the planet, is a classic. I mean seriously dude, im as radical a socialist as your likely to find this side of ’36, but come on! You want to take on Big Ag, multinationals, the WB, cool. But Gluten…Gluten! Folks, dismiss this nonsense, and seek the help of a proffesional if you have chronic or episodic GI issues, seek different opinions if you arent satisfied with the diagnosis. But by all means, dont fall for pseudo scientific claptrap like this. A Gluten free life, no matter what any layman will claim, is a brutally difficult one, devoid of many of the pleasures so many of us hold dear in life (like fabulous food). To go for this lifestyle without solid science based proof, is foolhardy at best.

  5. James Keye said on October 5th, 2009 at 7:52pm #

    Thecelt,

    You have read a great deal into the essay that is not there. I don’t claim to have celiac disease, only that removing gluten containing foods resulted in changes that seem to be explained by an immune-like (inflammatory) response ending. Whether this is the explanation would require medical testing – this was not my goal. I was careful to maintain about the same calorie intake and exercise levels, have a complex and active life and am not a “navel gazer.” The reactions surprised me, since I expected very little. My curiosity about gluten digestion was increased. The rest of the essay materialized. I am postulating that a protein for which our digestive system is not well adapted could have more far reaching consequences than generally recognized since it is associated with a very high percentage of our present foods. You, like Mr. Hunt, have confused the anecdotal, data-based material and speculative parts of the essay – and perhaps mixed in some of your own personal confusions. Eat whatever you wish. I would argue, however, that eating foods for which the digestive system has a long evolutionary history in preference to those that we do not is not foolhardy. The grasses have about 80 million years of evolutionary time separating them from the primary plants that long made up the Hominid diet. This is not to say that they cannot be consumed, clearly. But that there are reasons to look into some general difficulties created by the partial digestion of their proteins.

  6. Living in USA makes us Fat said on October 5th, 2009 at 9:33pm #

    I’d go further than this article: The whole USA is a conspiracy, a capitalist conspiracy by food corporations to make us gain weight. Remember that weight-loss industry is another big business in America. The USA as a whole is a big conspiracy to make us sick, fat, gain weight, lose weight, and die (even death is a big industry in America).

    We are trapped in this Matrix.

    .

  7. Living in USA makes us Fat said on October 5th, 2009 at 9:40pm #

    James Keye: Hello, do you follow a low-carb diet? I think that the average american diet is too high in starchy-carbohydrates and carbohydrates as a whole. I think that USA needs a diet-revolution toward proposing a diet lower in starchy-carbohydrates and sweets. and higher inprotein. Because i am carbohydrate-sensitive. I can’t eat rice, flour, and foods with starch. I get most of my carbohydrates from brocoli, green-cabbage, brussel sprouts and fuits low in glycemic index.

    .

    .

  8. Living in USA makes us Fat said on October 5th, 2009 at 9:47pm #

    Americans are addicted to foods like Duncan Hines, Pillsbury rolls, frozen pizzas, Pillsbury crossaints (They are good shit), Tostitos with melted cheese, etc. fig-bars, doritos, corn-dogs, pancakes, pillsbury cakes, kraft cheese, Nabisco Ritz cookies, combos, oreos, pop-tarts, combos, tostitos, fajitas, calzonis, Cicis pizzas, Sonic Drive in, Golden Corral, I-hop all u can eat buffets, potatoe salads, twinkies, little debbies, donkin donuts, struddles, apple jax, pecan pies, ice cream, M and ms, Twix, Snickers bars, chocolate chip cookies

    RICOTTA and Butter are another tools used by capitalist-controllers to sedate americans into an endless sleep of cheese, bread, butter and cake slavery.

    .

  9. Annie Ladysmith said on October 5th, 2009 at 11:23pm #

    ALL MAMMALS EAT THE GRASSES! And quite frankly this is a painfully boring topic. We all try to eat the best we can given a few toxins here and there. (there would be TONS more if we lived in China). We are living past 50, unlike most of the world. Hey! glad you are such a healthy older guy, that is really exciting and thanks for sharing it!

  10. James Keye said on October 6th, 2009 at 5:16am #

    Ms. Ladysmith,

    It is simply not true that all mammals ‘eat the grasses.’ Grasses require a specialized digestive process. Grass seed has similar issues. If the topic of primary material intake into the physiology of living process doesn’t interest you, then thanks for sharing your disinterest.

  11. b99 said on October 6th, 2009 at 6:10am #

    There are browsers and there are grazers – it’s a pretty clear division, even if many animals are not 100% one or the other. (It’s easier for a grazer to browse than for a browser to graze.) Humans emerged out of the browsing tradition – probably the less grass matter we eat, the better.

  12. David said on October 6th, 2009 at 7:55am #

    Mr. Keye:

    With a stroke of the pen, you have replaced oxygen as “the most powerful, chemically active material that we routinely put into our bodies.”

    Nice work!

  13. Living in USA makes us Fat said on October 6th, 2009 at 8:44am #

    Annie: When you say “We” do you mean USA citizens? Because i don’t think that you meant that americans are healthy society. There are a lot of illnesses in the general american population. I think that USA is one of the countries with highest ratings of diceases, illnesses and physiological problems.

    .

  14. Living in USA makes us Fat said on October 6th, 2009 at 8:49am #

    James Keye: hello again, do you think that USA needs a low-carb revolution? Because i think that this country needs a socialist government which would wage an anti-carbohydrate revolution. But for that socialists hate to seize political power first and make the dietary and health changes from a power possition, in order to crush and expropiate and nationalize the capitalist corporations like Nabisco, Pillsbury, Merita Breads, Kellogs, Post Cereals, etc. in order to lower the carbohyrate intake of this country and lead americans into a world of way of eating lower in carbohydrates and calories. But for all the reforms and changes that we need to do, we first gotta seize the government and smash the bourgeoise-class, like Hugo Chavez is doing in Venezuela and like Lenin did in Russia.

    .

  15. b99 said on October 6th, 2009 at 11:06am #

    Living in USA – How do we go about the process of seizing the government and smashing the bourgeoisie? After all, it seems the tea-party anti-government activists are on the right – and pretty much support the bourgeoisie.

  16. James Keye said on October 8th, 2009 at 4:26pm #

    David,
    Oxygen is most certainly a very reactive element. Its role in physiology is, however, quite limited to releasing the chemical energy in glucose. Your snarly tone, suggests to me that a firmer grounding in basic physiology would clear up your concerns.