It’s no wonder the general public occasionally lose faith with healthcare and science! A small column on page 19 of THE WEEK with an eye-catching headline in red: ‘The fad for gluten-free’, really does a disservice in the name of ‘Health & Science’, . . . well of course it caught my eye!
I have been a regular reader of the Health & Science page in THE WEEK for some time, and I find the magazine’s round-up and synopses of the best published articles a great way of keeping abreast of the main issues in current affairs.
THE WEEK’S Health & Science page doesn’t attach an editor’s name, and I suspect it has many contributors, but the outdated inaccuracies in this small, dismissive, DISPARAGING column about the current trend for gluten-free eating, left me gasping and scrabbling for my laptop to email some corrections to somebody on their staff. (Yes, shouty capitals warranted!)
Firstly, the writer seemed to think Coeliac disease is simply a case of not being able to digest gluten. (eye-roll). – Oh that it was really that simple, I can hear Coeliac sufferers throughout the country crying in despair! Printing this sort of inaccuracy on a health & science page is just irresponsible. It could lead to chefs everywhere thinking that all the gluten training they’ve just been obliged to complete, was the result of over-zealous misinformed, dietary fanatics. When in fact, Coeliacs really do need chefs to be vigilant and scrupulous in safeguarding against gluten contamination when preparing foods for them.
The truth is, for a Coeliac, exposure to any gluten, however incidental, causes an autoimmune disease process, that destroys their gut lining (and possibly other organ tissues too). Of course, this destruction will hinder digestion of gluten and many other foods, because the tiny hair-like projections (villi) that would normally form the absorptive surface area of a healthy small intestine, also secrete digestive enzymes. With villi flattening (destruction), comes reduced digestive function and loss of absorptive capacity, leading to nutrient deficiencies and therefore a greater risk of a host of other diseases.
Their column also suggests that ‘there’s little scientific evidence’ for the fad that sees ordinary healthy individuals choosing to forego gluten. (This was the bit that got me a little agitated!) Clearly this contributing ‘science writer’ has rather skimmed on their research. (Shall we be generous and blame the distraction of christmas parties at this busy time of year?) What scientists are actually saying is that research into gliadin, one of the proteins in gluten, has thrown up some very interesting facts for all of us, not just Coeliacs.
Researchers have discovered gluten actually increases gut permeability in everyone. A protein called zonulin, synthesized in our guts, regulates the traffic of molecules across and through the gut lining. Unfortunately, zonulin proteins become dynamically hyper-active when exposed to gluten, triggering gap-junction cells within the intestinal surface, to open wider than is ideal, letting a greater flow of antigens through. The resulting flow of undigested foods, bacteria by-products and viruses, (that would normally be blocked), may be an underlying cause of all autoimmune diseases, having as they do one common disease entity, a leaky, hyper-permeable gut lining. It could also exacerbate food intolerances and raise risk of allergies too, and overload the poor old liver that would have to process and eliminate all the extra waste coming through.
So please ignore THE WEEK’S current science writer who’s a little behind the curve. Ignore the faintly mocking remark that some scientists have intimated that giving up gluten ‘may actually be harmful to your health’, on the grounds that you will end up deficient in several vital vitamins found in grains’.
There are many alternate grains to wheat, rye and barley – that also contain useful vitamins – but without gluten. And all the vitamins found in grains are also found in vegetables anyway. Reducing your exposure to gluten is sensible for anyone who thinks their gut lining may already be a little challenged. That includes anyone with IBS and inflammatory bowel disease like crohn’s. It also includes anyone who consumes alcohol above the recommended levels, or who is required to take non-steroidal anti-inflammatories on a regular basis, or who is simply mature in years. Because all of these things can contribute to a ‘loss of integrity’ of that precious gut-lining. The integrity and healthy functioning of ones gut-lining is the foundation of health, so if gluten triggers a hyper-permeable, leaky-gut, it makes sense to limit your exposure.
So pat yourself on the back if you are one of the ‘large numbers of healthy individuals’ forgoing or reducing your intake of gluten. The media may mock and confuse the issue, but science backs this very sensible choice!
Fasano A. & Shea-Donohue T. (2005) Mechanisms of disease: the role of intestinal barrier function in the pathogenesis of gastrointestinal autoimmune diseases. Nat. Clin. Pract. Gastroenterol. Hepatol. 2, 416-422
Arrieta MC et al., (2006) Alterations in intestinal permeability Gut 55:1512-1520