Here we are in the midst of Celiac & Gluten Sensitivity Awareness month when, yesterday on Huffington Post live, Michael Pollan called Gluten Sensitivity a “social contagion.” Watch the clip…
Who is Michael Pollan and what makes him an expert on Gluten Sensitivity? He is a journalist and well-known book author, who has received numerous awards, including being recognized by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people. His writings usually rail against genetically modified organisms, fast food, and agribusiness, taking an in-depth look into today’s modern food system.
Many of his philosophies are in line with mine, so I was all the more disappointed that he so readily dismissed Gluten Sensitivity. While he may be looking at food and people on a sociological or anthropological level, he is not an expert on epidemiology or health science, and it doesn’t sound like he’s ever done a search in PubMed for Gluten Sensitivity. Before using his big influence to publicly surmise that Gluten Sensitivity is a “bit of a social contagion,” he should have looked into the facts. Not doing so is a huge oversight on his part, and a discredit to his journalistic integrity.
Here ARE the facts:
- Gluten Sensitivity IS a legitimate medical condition, which an international panel of experts gave official status to in February 2012 .
- The latest estimates are that Gluten Sensitivity affects 8 to 12% to possibly even 29% of the population, and some doctors think it could be even more .
- This means that roughly 10 times MORE people are affected with Gluten Sensitivity than are affected with Celiac Disease, if not much more. Some people call Celiac Disease the “tip of the iceberg”, since it is just one way in which Gluten Sensitivity manifests itself. Others believe that Gluten Sensitivity may be a pre-cursor to Celiac Disease.
- There are 1,133 references to Gluten Sensitivity in the PubMed database of medical literature. Clearly, there is medical attention being given to the condition. However, since its official status is fairly new, lots more research needs to be done to understand its pathology. This does not negate the fact that there are negative effects associated with gluten, outside of Celiac Disease. We’ve only just begun quantifying (in medical literature) what they are. There is of course, plenty of anecdotal stories of people with chronic health conditions that have been cured on a gluten-free diet, which should not be discounted just because they haven’t been published in a double-blind placebo controlled study.
- While many patients of Gluten Sensitivity complain of chronic digestive distress, not everyone with Gluten Sensitivity feel digestive symptoms. In fact, gluten-related disorders can also manifest in many other ways, from neurological and psychiatric disorders, to skin conditions , arthritis  and autoimmune disorders like Crohn’s  , multiple sclerosis   and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis . The effects of gluten on the population are serious. Nearly 200 disorders have been associated with gluten (and counting).
- Celiac Disease is 4 times more prevalent today than it was 50 years ago in both the US and the UK  . We could surmise that Gluten Sensitivity, then, is also more prevalent. This is most likely due to the fact that we are eating a different strain of wheat today, then we were 50 years ago . In addition, both Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity are probably being diagnosed at increasing rates today. This is due to greater awareness, as well as greater understanding of the diseases. This increased prevalence and increased awareness does not mean that this diet is a fad, nor did it suddenly just come out of nowhere.
So many so-called food experts and media outlets downplay the gluten-free diet and claim that unless you have celiac disease, gluten is harmless. That is simply untrue. Don’t listen to the naysayers. Listen to your body. You know best. If you feel sick after eating gluten, or you notice an improvement in a chronic condition when you remove gluten from your diet, you may very likely be Gluten Sensitive. And there is absolutely no harm in taking it out of your diet. Kudos to you for believing in yourself and taking the right steps toward better health.
REFERENCES: Sapone, A.; Bai, J.C.; Ciacci, C.; Dolinsek, J.; Green, P.H.; Hadjivassiliou, M.; Kaukinen, K.; Rostami, K.; Sanders, D.S.; Schumann, M.; et al. Spectrum of gluten-related disorders: Consensus on new nomenclature and classification. BMC Medicine. 2012, 10, 13.  Giacomo Caio, Umberto Volta, Francesco Tovoli and Roberto De Giorgio. Effect of gluten free diet on immune response to gliadin in patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. BMC Gastroenterology. 2014, 14:26. Hadjivassiliou M1, Grünewald RA, Kandler RH, Chattopadhyay AK, Jarratt JA, Sanders DS, Sharrack B, Wharton SB, Davies-Jones GA. Neuropathy associated with gluten sensitivity. Journal of Neurology and Neurosurgical Psychiatry. 2006 Nov;77(11):1262-6.  Louisville Celiac Sprue Support Group, June 2003. Early Diagnosis Of Gluten Sensitivity: Before the Villi are Gone. https://www.enterolab.com/StaticPages/EarlyDiagnosis.aspx  Dr. Vikki Petersen, personal communication  Jessica R. Jackson, William W. Eaton, Nicola G. Cascella, Alessio Fasano, and Deanna L. Kelly. Neurologic and Psychiatric Manifestations of Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity. NIH Public Access Author Manuscript. Published in final edited form as: Psychiatr Q. 2012 March ; 83(1): 91–102. Humbert P1, Pelletier F, Dreno B, Puzenat E, Aubin F. Gluten intolerance and skin diseases European Journal of Dermatology. 2006 Jan-Feb;16(1):4-11.  Pinals RS. Arthritis associated with gluten-sensitive enteropathy. Journal of Rheumatology. 1986 Feb ;13(1):201-4.  Jen’s Story:  Danielle Walker’s Story  Shor DB1, Barzilai O, Ram M, Izhaky D, Porat-Katz BS, Chapman J, Blank M, Anaya JM, Shoenfeld Y. Gluten sensitivity in multiple sclerosis: experimental myth or clinical truth? Annals of the New York Academy of Science. 2009 Sep;1173:343-9.  Dr. Terry Wahl’s story  Valentino R1, Savastano S, Maglio M, Paparo F, Ferrara F, Dorato M, Lombardi G, Troncone R. Markers of potential coeliac disease in patients with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. European Journal Endocrinology. 2002 Apr;146(4):479-83.  Mayo Clinic. “Celiac Disease Four Times More Common Than In 1950s.” ScienceDaily. 2 July 2009. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/07/090701082911.htm.  University of Nottingham. “Fourfold increase in rate of diagnosed cases of celiac disease in the UK.” ScienceDaily. 11 May 2014. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/05/140511214807.htm.  Davis, W. Wheat Belly. Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health. Rodale. 2011. 292pp.
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