“We corresponded a few months back when you were kind enough to answer a question about gluten for my final paper at _______ College. I have since finished that program and am enrolled at the Institute of _________. Since the 1st, I have led some friends in a modified cleanse that was simply avoidance of alcohol, sugar, caffeine, dairy, gluten. I have tried omitting gluten before for a few weeks and never noticed anything, so I went into this experience expecting the same outcome, no reaction to gluten. Well, I have had bread twice over the course of the two weeks. The first time I thought my reaction was a fluke, the second time, I cannot deny what happened. I came home and went right to bed. I slept for nearly two hours. Generally, I am not a napper. Also, I have been eating enough (I am a chef), getting fresh air and exercising, there should be no reason for this unexplained exhaustion.”
“Anyway, I know you probably hear these stories every day. I am going to introduce gluten into my diet once more (on a day when I have the time to nap) to see if I experience the same result, but I wanted to share my experience with you.”
While I don’t know her exact age, she is a recent college graduate and is now enrolled in a graduate program for nutrition, so we can assume mid- twenties. There are two points I’d like to discuss regarding her experience.
First, is it a “fluke” that she seems to be reacting to gluten when she hadn’t on prior challenges?
Second, is it odd that her symptom was severe fatigue rather than a digestive complaint?
My answer to both questions is “no” but let’s look at why.
Research from 2010 shows us that celiac disease increases with age almost 4-fold. I am of the opinion that such an increase is seen with gluten sensitivity as well. The presence of gluten in the diet along with a genetic predisposition to react to it is seemingly not enough to incite celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. We require a third component, a sub optimally functioning small intestine. This malfunction is thought to stem from a poor balance of the 60 trillion healthy bacteria (probiotics) that reside in the small intestine. This amazing population of bacteria appears to have the ability to turn on and off gene expression. When they are happy and healthy then can keep a gluten intolerant gene turned off, but when they are no longer functioning optimally, bad genes such as those that cause celiac disease, can be turned on and the individual “suddenly” becomes gluten intolerant.
Is there a continuum of more and more compromised health the longer one is gluten intolerant? Yes there is. So while our young lady who wrote the e-mail is astute enough to notice that she becomes exhausted when she challenges gluten, what would next develop symptom-wise if she ignored this response from her body? Remember that this woman is being trained in the field of nutrition so her awareness is already quite high. A typical person might very well have made some other excuse for needing a nap and missed the association with gluten. In fact, that’s one of the major services we provide our nutrition patients – helping them to see the cause and effect relationship between how they feel and what they’ve eaten or done in their life. E.g. more sleep, more exercise, less caffeine, etc.
The takeaway here is that it’s a good idea to be checked for a gluten intolerance, especially if there’s anything non-optimal about your health. If you’re feeling well now and gluten isn’t a problem, it could be several years from now, especially if your health is less ideal. This is particularly true if you have any celiac, autoimmune diseases, or cancer in your family tree.
Let’s look at the second point. Her symptom of exhaustion to the point of needing to sleep for two hours can definitely be attributed to a nervous system reaction to gluten. The nervous system is often the first system to respond to gluten, even before the digestive system. While research makes this point clearly, many people are still stuck with the idea that if you are eating something your body doesn’t care for, it will respond through the digestive tract. It’s a concept that makes intuitive sense; it just so happens that it’s untrue.
Evaluate your symptoms. Don’t put up with feeling poorly. If you’ve done lab tests in the past that were negative it doesn’t preclude you from either doing them again or doing a 30 day gluten-free challenge. I would love it if you would avoid dairy as much as possible too, but I won’t force the point!
We are learning so much about how gluten affects the body and the fact that it can create damage in a body that, when younger, seemed to tolerate it well, is undisputed at this point. I promise you that feeling healthy and energetic beats out the best gluten-containing food you ever ate! Give it a try and let me know how it goes.
Let me know if I can be of any further assistance. HealthNOW is a destination clinic and we see patients from all over the country as well as internationally. If you want to improve your health, consider calling us for a free health analysis - call 408-733-0400.
To your good health,
Dr Vikki Petersen
Founder of HealthNOW Medical Center
Co-author of the bestselling “The Gluten Effect”