Awareness of the negative health effects of gluten has increased in the past few years.
One 2013 survey shows that a third of Americans are actively trying to eliminate gluten from their diets.
But gluten-free is more than just the latest fad … there are multiple studies showing that gluten can cause harmful effects.
Here are 6 reasons to avoid gluten.
Photo credit: Shutterstock
1. Celiac Disease is on the Rise and Most People Remain Undiagnosed
Gluten is a protein composite found in several types of grains, including wheat, spelt, rye and barley.
Gluten consists of two proteins … gliadin and glutenin. It is the gliadin part that people react negatively to.
When flour is mixed with water, gluten forms a sticky cross-linked network of proteins, giving elastic properties to dough and allowing bread to rise when baked.
Actually, the name gluten is derived from these glue-like properties.
When gluten reaches the digestive tract and is exposed to the cells of the immune system, they mistakenly believe that it is coming from some sort of foreign invader, like a bacteria.
In certain people who are sensitive to gluten, this causes the immune system to mount an attack against it.
In celiac disease (the most severe form of gluten sensitivity), the immune system attacks the gluten proteins, but it also attacks an enzyme in the cells of the digestive tract called tissue transglutaminase.
Therefore, gluten exposure in celiacs causes the immune system to attack both the gluten as well as the intestinal wall itself. For this reason, celiac disease is classified as an autoimmune disease.
The immune reaction can cause degeneration of the intestinal wall, which leads to nutrient deficiencies, various digestive issues, anemia, fatigue, failure to thrive as well as an increased risk of many serious diseases.
Celiac disease is believed to afflict about 1 percent of people, but it may be more common (more than 2 percent) in the elderly. There are also studies showing that the rate of celiac disease is increasing rapidly in the population.
Keep in mind that a large percentage of celiacs don’t even have abdominal symptoms, making diagnosis on clinical grounds very difficult.
The symptoms might manifest themselves in different ways, like fatigue, anemia … or something much worse, like a doubled risk of death in several studies.
According to one study, more than 80 percent of people with celiac disease don’t even know that they have it.
Bottom Line: Celiac disease currently afflicts about 1 percent of the population, but the prevalence is increasing. 80 percent of people with celiac disease are unaware of it.
2. Gluten Sensitivity is Much More Common and Can Also Have Serious Consequences
You don’t need to have full-blown celiac disease to have adverse reactions to gluten.
There is another disorder called gluten sensitivity (or gluten intolerance), which is much more common.
Although there is no clear definition of gluten sensitivity, it basically means having some sort of adverse reaction to gluten and an improvement in symptoms on a gluten-free diet.
If you have adverse reactions to gluten, but celiac disease is ruled out, then it is callednon-celiac gluten sensitivity.
In non-celiac gluten sensitivity, there is no attack on the body’s own tissues. However, many of the symptoms are similar to those in celiac disease, including bloating, stomach pain, fatigue, diarrhea, as well as pain in the bones and joints.
Unfortunately … because there is no clear way of diagnosing gluten sensitivity, reliable numbers on how common it is are impossible to find.
There are two sources showing that up to 6-8 percent people may have gluten sensitivity, based on anti-gliadin antibodies found in the blood.
However, one gastroenterologist found that 11 percent of people had antibodies against gluten in their blood and 29 percent of people had antibodies against it in stool samples.
About 40 percent of people carry the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes, which make people susceptible to gluten sensitivity.
Given that there is no clear definition of gluten sensitivity, or a good way to diagnose it, the only true way of knowing is by eliminating gluten temporarily from your diet, then reintroducing it to see if you have symptoms.
Bottom Line: Gluten sensitivity is much more common than celiac disease, also leading to multiple adverse effects. However, there is no clear way of diagnosing it yet.
3. Gluten May Cause Adverse Effects, Even in People Who Don’t Have Gluten Sensitivity
There are also studies showing that individuals with neither celiac disease nor diagnosed gluten sensitivity have adverse reactions to gluten.
In one of these studies, 34 individuals with irritable bowel syndrome were randomized to either a gluten-containing or a gluten-free diet.
The group on the gluten-containing diet had more pain, bloating, stool inconsistency and fatigue compared to the other group.
There are also studies showing that gluten can cause inflammation in the intestine and a degenerated intestinal lining.
Gluten may also have negative effects on the barrier function of the intestine, allowing unwanted substances to “leak” through into the bloodstream.
However, according to one study, this “leakiness” of the gut only happens in celiac patients.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) involves various digestive issues with an unknown cause, afflicting about 14 percent of people in the U.S. According to the studies above, some cases of IBS may be either caused or exacerbated by gluten.
Although this needs to be studied a lot more, it seems very clear that many more people than just celiac patients react negatively to gluten.
Bottom Line: Several studies show that individuals (especially IBS patients) who don’t have diagnosed gluten sensitivity can have adverse reactions to gluten.
4. Many Brain Disorders Are Associated With Gluten and Patients See Dramatic Improvements on a Gluten-Free Diet
Even though gluten primarily works its “magic” in the gut, it can also have severe effects on the brain. Many cases of neurological illness may be caused and/or exacerbated by gluten consumption. This is called gluten-sensitive idiopathic neuropathy.
In a study of patients with neurological illness of an unknown cause, 30 of 53 patients (57 percent) had antibodies against gluten in the blood. The main neurological disorder believed to be at least partly caused by gluten is cerebellar ataxia, a serious disease of the brain that involves an inability to coordinate balance, movements, problems talking, etc. It is now known that many cases of ataxia are directly linked to gluten consumption. This is called gluten ataxia and involves irreversible damage to the cerebellum, a part of the brain that is important in motor control.
Many studies show strong statistical associations between gluten consumption, gluten sensitivity and cerebellar ataxia. There is also a controlled trial showing that ataxia patients improve significantly on a gluten-free diet.There are several other brain disorders that respond well to a gluten-free diet:
- Schizophrenia: A subset of schizophrenia patients sees massive improvements by removing gluten.
- Autism: Several studies suggest that people with autism see improvements in symptoms on a gluten-free diet.
- Epilepsy: There are several reports of patients with epilepsy improving significantly when removing gluten.
If you have any neurological problems and your doctor doesn’t have a clue what is causing them … then it makes sense to try removing gluten from your diet.
Bottom Line: Several disorders of the brain respond well to a gluten-free diet, including autism, schizophrenia and a rare form of epilepsy.
5. Wheat Gluten May be Addictive
There are many people who believe that wheat may be addictive. Getting unnatural cravings for things like bread or donuts is very common. Even though this is far from being proven, there are some studies suggesting that gluten may have addictive properties.
When gluten is broken down in a test tube, the peptides that are formed can activate opioid receptors. These peptides (small proteins) are called gluten exorphins. Exorphin = peptide that is not formed in the body, that can activate opioid receptors in the brain.
Given that gluten may cause increased permeability in the intestine (at least in celiac patients), some believe that these exorphins can find their way into the bloodstream, then reaching the brain and causing addiction. Gluten exorphins have been found in the blood of celiac patients. There is also some evidence from animal studies that these opioid-like peptides derived from gluten can make it into the brain.
It is well known in various food addiction circles that wheat is one of the most addictive foods there are (right after sugar). This doesn’t prove anything of course, but it’s something to keep in mind.
Bottom Line: Many people report getting unnatural cravings for wheat and there is some evidence of gluten having opioid-like effects. However, this is definitely not proven and is mostly speculation at this point.
6. Gluten is Associated With Autoimmune Diseases
Autoimmune diseases are caused by the immune system attacking things that are found naturally in the body.
There are many types of autoimmune diseases that affect various organ systems.
All of them combined afflict about 3 percent of the population.
Celiac disease is one type of autoimmune disease and celiac patients are at a drastically increased risk of getting other autoimmune diseases as well.
Many studies have found strong statistical associations between gluten, celiac disease and various other autoimmune diseases, including Hashimotos Thyroiditis, Type 1 Diabetes, Multiple sclerosis and various others.
Additionally, celiac disease is associated with a ton of other serious diseases, many of which have nothing to do with digestion.
Bottom Line: Studies show strong statistical association between gluten, celiac disease and various autoimmune diseases.
Eliminate Gluten For 30 Days
Of course, it is far from being definitively proven that gluten causes harm in a large percentage of people and that most people would do best by avoiding it. This area is in desperate need of some more research. However, the evidence that we DO have is pretty damning.
Until more research is done, I think the cautionary principle should apply … why eat something that is likely to cause harm, when you could eat something else instead that definitely won’t harm you? Also keep in mind that wheat (the unhealthiest grain, by far) can be problematic for many reasons, some of which have nothing to do with the gluten.
At the end of the day, the only way to know if you should avoid gluten or not, is to remove it from your diet, then reintroduce it and see if you get symptoms. If you completely eliminate gluten for 30 days (no cheating), then eat a meal with gluten and experience adverse effects, then you probably have gluten sensitivity and should make a serious effort to avoid it. If you have any mysterious health issues, then you owe it to yourself to try a gluten-free diet for 30 days. You have nothing to lose.
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EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Mark Hertsgaard
What follows are not candidate endorsements. Rather, this nonpartisan guide aims to inform voters' choices, help journalists decide what races to follow, and explore what the 2020 elections could portend for climate action in the United States in 2021 and beyond.
Will the White House Turn Green?<p>Whether the White House changes hands is the most important climate question of the 2020 elections. President Donald Trump rejects climate science, is withdrawing the United States from the Paris Agreement, and has accelerated fossil fuel development. His climate policy seems to be, as he tweeted in January when rejecting a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proposal to protect New York City from storm surges, "Get your mops and buckets ready."</p><p>Joe Biden, who started the 2020 campaign with a climate position so weak that activists gave it an "F," called Trump a "climate arsonist" during California's recent wildfires. Biden backs a $2 trillion plan to create millions of jobs while slashing emissions—a Green New Deal in all but name. Equally striking, his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has endorsed phasing out fossil fuel production—a politically explosive scientific imperative.</p><p>The race will be decided in a handful of battleground states, five of which already face grave climate dangers: Florida (hurricanes and sea-level rise), North Carolina (ditto), Texas (storms and drought), Michigan (floods), and Arizona (heat waves and drought). <a href="https://climatecommunication.yale.edu/visualizations-data/ycom-us/" target="_blank">Public concern is rising</a> in these states, but will that concern translate into votes?</p>
Will Democrats Flip the Senate, and by Enough to Pass a Green New Deal?<p>With Democrats all but certain to maintain their majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, the Senate will determine whether a potential Biden administration can actually deliver climate progress. Democrats need to pick up three seats to flip the Senate if Biden wins, four if he doesn't. But since aggressive climate policy is shunned by some Democrats, notably Joe Manchin of coal-dependent West Virginia, Democrats probably need to gain five or six Senate seats to pass a Green New Deal.</p><p>Environmentalists, including the League of Conservation Voters, are targeting six Republicans who polls suggest are vulnerable.</p><ul><li>Steve Daines of Montana, who denies climate science</li><li>Martha McSally of Arizona</li><li>Thom Tillis of North Carolina</li><li>Susan Collins of Maine</li><li>Joni Ernst of Iowa (bankrolled by Charles Koch)</li><li>John James of Michigan (also a Koch beneficiary)</li></ul><p>Republican Senators are even at risk in conservative Kansas and Alaska. In both states, the Democratic candidates are physicians—not a bad credential amid a pandemic—who support climate action. In Kansas, Barbara Bollier faces an incumbent funded by Charles Koch. In Alaska, Al Gross urges a transition away from oil, though his openness to limited drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Preserve dims his appeal to green groups. He faces incumbent Republican Dan Sullivan, who receives an 8 percent lifetime voting record from the League of Conservation Voters.</p>
Will Local and State Races Advance Climate Progress?<h4>THE CLIMATE HAWKS</h4><p>Under Democratic and Republican leadership alike, Washington has long been a graveyard for strong climate action. But governors can boost or block renewable energy; the Vermont and New Hampshire races are worth watching. Attorneys general can sue fossil fuel companies for lying about climate change; climate hawks are running for the top law enforcement seats in Montana and North Carolina. State legislatures can accelerate or delay climate progress, as the new Democratic majorities in Virginia have shown. Here, races to watch include Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and Colorado.</p><h4>THE CLIMATE POLICY MAKERS</h4><p>Perhaps the most powerful, and most overlooked, climate policy makers are public utility commissions. They control whether pipelines and other energy infrastructure gets built; they regulate whether electric utilities expand solar and energy efficiency or stick with the carbon-heavy status quo. Regulatory capture and outright corruption are not uncommon.</p><p>A prime example is Arizona, where a former two-term commissioner known as the godfather of solar in the state is seeking a comeback. Bill Mundell argues that since Arizona law permits utilities to contribute to commissioners' electoral campaigns, the companies can buy their own regulators. Which may explain why super-sunny Arizona has so little installed solar capacity.</p><p>In South Dakota, Remi Bald Eagle, a Native American U.S. Army veteran, seeks a seat on the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission, which rules on the Standing Rock oil pipeline. And in what <em>HuffPost</em> called "the most important environmental race in the country," Democrat Chrysta Castaneda, who favors phasing out oil production, is running for the Texas Railroad Commission, which despite its name decides what oil, gas, and electric companies in America's leading petro-state can build.</p>
Will the Influencers Usher in a Green New Era?<h4>THE UNCOUNTED</h4><p>The story that goes largely under-reported in every U.S. election is how few Americans vote. In 2016, some 90 million, <a href="https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">roughly four out of every 10 eligible voters</a>, did not cast a ballot. Attorney Nathaniel Stinnett claims that 10 million of these nonvoters nevertheless identify as environmentalists: They support green policies, even donate to activist groups; they just don't vote. Stinnett's <a href="https://www.environmentalvoter.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Environmental Voter Project</a> works to awaken this sleeping giant.</p><h4>THE SUNRISE MOVEMENT</h4><p>Meanwhile, the young climate activists of the <a href="http://www.sunrisemovement.org/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Sunrise Movement</a> are already winning elections with an unabashedly Green New Deal message. More than any other group, Sunrise pushed the Green New Deal into the national political conversation, helping Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Ed Markey draft the eponymous congressional resolution. In 2020, Sunrise has helped Green New Deal champions defeat centrists in Democratic primaries, with Markey dealing Representative Joe Kennedy Jr. the first defeat a Kennedy has ever suffered in a Massachusetts election. But can Sunrise also be successful against Republicans in the general elections this fall?</p><h4>THE STARPOWER</h4><p>And an intriguing wild card: celebrity firepower, grassroots activism, and big-bucks marketing have converged behind a campaign to get Latina mothers to vote climate in 2020. Latinos have long been the U.S. demographic most concerned about climate change. Now, <a href="https://votelikeamadre.com/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Vote Like A Madre</a> aims to get 5 million Latina mothers in Florida, Texas, and Arizona to the polls. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayak, and Lin-Manuel Miranda are urging mothers to make a "pinky promise" to vote for their kids' climate future in November. Turning out even a quarter of those 5 million voters, though no easy task, could swing the results in three states Trump must win to remain president, which brings us back to the first category, "Will the White House Turn Green?"</p>
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By Tony Carnie
South Africa is home to around 1,300 of the world's roughly 7,100 remaining cheetahs. It's also the only country in the world with significant cheetah population growth, thanks largely to a nongovernmental conservation project that depends on careful and intensive human management of small, fenced-in cheetah populations. Because most of the reserves are privately funded and properly fenced, the animals benefit from higher levels of security than in the increasingly thinly funded state reserves.
Vincent van der Merwe at a cheetah translocation. Endangered Wildlife Trust
Under Pressure<p>Cheetah populations elsewhere in Southern Africa have not prospered over the past 50 years. In Zimbabwe, cheetah numbers have crashed from 1,500 in 1975, to just 170 today. Botswana's cheetah population has held steady at around 1,500 over the same period, but illegal capture for captive breeding and conflicts with farmers and the growing human population are increasing. In Namibia, there were an estimated 3,000 cheetah in in 1975; roughly 1,400 remain today.</p><p>In contrast, South Africa's cheetah numbers have grown from about 500 in 1975 to nearly 1,300 today. Van der Merwe, who is also a Ph.D. student at the University of Cape Town's Institute for Communities and Wildlife in Africa (iCWild), says he's confident that South Africa will soon overtake Namibia and Botswana, largely because the majority of South African cheetahs are protected and managed behind fences, whereas most of the animals in the neighboring countries remain more vulnerable on mainly unfenced lands.</p><p>Wildlife researchers Florian Weise and colleagues have reported that private stock owners in Namibia still trap cheetahs mainly for translocation, but there are few public or private reserves large enough to contain them. Weise says that conservation efforts need to focus on improving tolerance toward cheetahs in commercial livestock and game farming areas to reduce indiscriminate trapping.</p><p>Van der Merwe says fences can be both a blessing and a curse. While these barriers prevent cheetahs and other wild animals from migrating naturally to breed and feed, they also protect cheetahs from the growing tide of threats from humanity and agriculture.</p><p>To simulate natural dispersion patterns that guard against inbreeding, the trust helps landowners swap their animals with other cheetah reserves elsewhere in the country. The South African metapopulation project has been so successful in boosting numbers that the trust is having to look beyond national boundaries to secure new translocation areas in Malawi, Zambia and Mozambique.</p><p>Cheetah translocations have been going on in South Africa since the mid-1960s, when the first unsuccessful attempts were made to move scores of these animals from Namibia. These relocations were mostly unsuccessful.</p>
Charli de Vos uses a VHF antenna to locate cheetahs in Phinda Game Reserve. Tony Carnie for Mongabay
Swinging for the Fences<p>But other wildlife conservation leaders have a different perspective on cheetah conservation strategy.</p><p>Gus Mills, a senior carnivore researcher retired in 2006 from SANParks, the agency that manages South Africa's national parks, after a career of more than 30 years in Kalahari and Kruger national parks. He says the focus should be on quality of living spaces rather than the quantity of cheetahs.</p><p>Mills, who was the founder of the Endangered Wildlife Trust's Carnivore Conservation Group in 1995, and who also spent six years after retirement studying cheetahs in the Kalahari, says it's more important to properly protect and, where possible, expand the size of existing protected areas.</p><p>He also advocates a triage approach to cheetah conservation, in which scarce funds and resources are focused on protecting cheetahs in formally protected areas, rather than diluting scarce resources in an attempt to try and save every single remaining cheetah population.</p><p>"People have an obsession with numbers. But I believe that it is more important to protect large landscape and habitats properly," Mills said.</p><p>He suggests that cheetahs enclosed within small reserves live in artificial conditions: "It's almost like glorified farming."</p><p>"In the long run we have to focus on consolidating formally protected areas," he added. "Africa's human population will double by 2050, so cheetah populations in unfenced areas will become unsustainable if they are eating people's livestock."</p>
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