Food is not benign! It is the most powerful, chemically active material that we routinely put into our bodies, i.e., 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 – 2 ½ 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. P.D.Howdle@leeds.ac.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 . 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 2 ½ 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 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.
 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.