The Trouble With Wheat #5: Leaky Gut and Celiac Disease

January 16, 2012

The Trouble With Wheat #5: Leaky Gut and Celiac Disease 

 Reference:  Wheat Belly by Bill DavisScientific American 

 Now it was the Greek physician Aretaeus in 100 AD who first told patients with celiac disease to fast and avoid food in order to cure those folks who got diarrhea, cramping pain, and progressive weight loss from eating wheat.  But it wasn’t until World War II that a curious Dutch physician, Willem Dicke, at the prompting of an observant mother who had noted that her child kept getting sick whenever he ate wheat, that the disease was named in the modern era.  Dr. Dicke had noted that some of his kids had actually improved during the horrible Dutch famine the Nazis inflicted on Holland and got worse when Sweden airlifted life-saving bread.  

So, celiac has been around since we discovered wheat.  But now, it is doubling in frequency every 20 years.  It’s not rare anymore.  And what’s changed?  Wheat!  Its genes have been tripled by the genetic crossing of chromosomes from two strains of grass to ancient wheat.  This manipulation tripled the calories produced by an acre, but also had a huge increase in the gluten/lectin component.  And it’s not just celiac that’s increasing. 

 What happens in celiac disease? Gluten has the unique ability to soak through the intestinal wall and set off antibodies that attack the small bowel.  Those who actually make the antibodies can be measured with blood tests and biopsied in their small bowel to diagnose the actual disease called “celiac”.  But only about 1% of the population has celiac (actually 1 of 138).  That’s not the whole story – though for those with celiac it is a huge story that is life-changing and very restrictive.   

The core problem is that gluten, and one of its core components called gliadin have the ability to induce your gut to make another protein called zonulin.  Zonulin regulates the leakiness of your gut.  Your intestinal cells are held together with just a few connections, and zonulin undoes them, just like a seamstress taking out some stitches that hold fabric together.  With that loosening, all sorts of other large molecules that are in your gut can leak into your tissue and bloodstream.  And the gliadin-zonulin thing happens to many, many more than those with pure celiac disease.  That could include you! 

 With that leakiness, your immune system goes nuts and frantically tries to reply to this flood of unexpected foreign antigens.   Immune markers of inflammation start pouring out of your gut and all sorts of unexpected things start to happen all over the body as those immune cells and markers target other tissues.   For example, there are strong connections made with many auto-immune diseases like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, diabetes, Crohn’s disease… That’s the new insight you need to know.  

Celiac is only 1% of the population, but likely 60% (I’m guessing but the number is huge) are affected to some degree by their leaky gut.  The effect is subtle, long-term, and pervasive.  I’m going to address about 6 more issues to try to convince you of this hypothesis.  Keep reading! 

 WWW. What will work for me?  Isn’t this terribly ironic?  Wheat, the staff of life. The foundation of civilization.   Addictive!  Yummy!  20% of our calories.  In all our food.  It damages our guts, loosens our membranes, and sets off trouble.  You thought you were in the “zone”? Not if your zonulin is exposed to wheat.  This is compelling.  Buy Bill Davis’s book.  He has written a clarion call.

Pop Quiz

1.   How many people have celiac disease?              Answer: Tricky question.  One in 138 have the pure disease but 50 years ago, it was a smaller number, on the order of 1 in a thousand.

2.   Wheat has recently changed in its genetic makeup.  How?              Answer: Ancient wheat was hybridized with two strains of grass to triple the genes.  That also introduced many grass based proteins that humans had never seen before.    Earned the Nobel Peace Prize.

3.    What happens to the human gut upon exposure to zonulin?                   Answer:  Zonulin literally unzips the protein anchors that whole gut cells together.   

4.     What is the net result of exposure to zonulin?                      Answer:   Leaky gut is when large proteins leak through the gut wall, setting off immunological reactions. The body makes antibodies that cross-react with native tissues starting autoimmune illnesses.  Trouble!

Written by John. E Whitcomb, MD at Brookfield Longevity, Brookfield, WI