Gluten free. It seems everything sold nowadays is gluten free. Gluten free this, gluten free that. It appears the “gluten free” movement has exploded on the scene in recent years and common, ordinary products will use this health related buzzword just to get a second glance from consumers. You know it’s gone too far when you can go to your local Whole Foods and sitting in the aisle is gluten free bar soap. Yeah… I just love the taste of this soap. Thank God, its gluten free or else I’d be gassy all night.
I recall the first time I heard about gluten. It was about ten years ago and my employer just hired a new recruit. At the weekly meeting, pizza was being served. I noticed the new hire wasn’t eating any pizza, so I told him not to be nervous and it was okay to take a few slices. There was plenty enough to go around. He proceeded to tell me, “I can’t eat pizza. The gluten in the pizza gives me the winds.” Curious, I asked him about this issue. He informed me, “That his system has difficulty breaking down the gluten in wheat.” Working in a hospital, I was aware of celiac disease but never heard about this form of gluten sensitivity before that day.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks the villi in the stomach. The villi are finger like projections that line the small intestine. Their function is to create a large area for nutrient absorption. If a person with celiac disease eats gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, or rye, their body mounts an all-out attack on the small intestine. The body detects gluten as a dangerous pathogen and acts accordingly. As you can imagine, if these villi get damaged vital nutrients cannot be absorbed into the body and malnutrition is a result. Therefore, people have to adhere to a strict, gluten-free diet. Although symptoms will subside within a few weeks, damage to the intestines may take up to several years to heal. In the United States, this disease afflicts less than 1% of the population or about 2.5 million people of which, most are undiagnosed.
New research suggests a virus may be to blame when people are afflicted by celiac disease. Even though celiac disease afflicts less than 1% of the population, it is estimated that 30% of Americans carry the gene that makes them more susceptible to developing celiac disease. Without going into the complicated theories behind gene expression, that is a big discrepancy.
A team of doctors who were studying reovirus – a common, benign virus that infects children – think it may be the trigger for developing celiac disease. Experiments on genetically engineered mice (who were predisposed to celiac disease) showed that when these mice were fed gluten and subsequently exposed to reovirus, they developed the same immunological response against gluten that humans do. But how does this translate to humans? These same researchers took blood samples on people who have celiac disease and they found these people have anywhere from two-to-five-times the levels of specific reovirus antibodies. They theorized that these people were exposed to reovirus sometime in their past and when the timing was right, celiac disease developed when there was an exposure to gluten.
The preliminary results are promising, but there is more work to be done. The researchers will now try to develop a causal link between reovirus and the beginning of celiac disease. They want to study 1000’s of children over the next several years before any concrete conclusions can be disclosed. If the findings are favorable, this could lead to a reovirus vaccine which would help people who are predisposed to developing celiac disease.
When I hear people who do not have celiac disease complain about gluten, I have to admit I roll my eyes. However, after these findings I will be more sensitive to the difficulties these people experience when eating gluten. Testing for reovirus antibodies should be a first step into getting a handle on this relatively unknown disorder. If the causal link is found, the health and well-being of sufferers will finally be addressed.
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