All That Because You Don’t Like Wheat?

2009-10-17 | |
Last updated: 2009-10-17

A part of the Western diet since the dawn of agriculture, wheat was first harvested around 9500 BC in the area now known as the Middle East. Though many millennia of haphazard breeding activities have altered wheat to better serve the human desire for domestication of the plant, wheat is not fundamentally different from its ancestors. Since that early time, much of the human population has consumed wheat on an ongoing basis and the foods made from wheat are now an entrenched part of many cultures.

Though 10,000 years is a long time in many contexts, it is a relatively short time in terms of human evolution considering that modern humans looking like we do today have been around for some 250,000 years. This makes wheat a relatively new food for humans and identifies the origins of celiac disease in humans.

Celiac disease (CD) is a condition affecting almost 1% of the Western population. Those with the condition suffer from a reaction to the gluten protein naturally found in wheat flour with the result being that the immune system attacks the small intestine as the body attempts to absorb the gluten. This attack results in damage to the intestine that prevents it from absorbing many nutrients from the digesting food. The result is that those with celiac disease can suffer from a form of malnutrition and the resulting effects on the body.

While the condition affects many people, estimates suggest that 95 to 97% of those with celiac disease have not been diagnosed as having the condition. This is often caused because the symptoms are highly variable and can be associated with other conditions, especially the diarrhea and stomach upset that many with the condition may observe.

This large number of undiagnosed people poses a serious health problem because those with the disease lack vitamin B6, folate, and vitamin B12. Without proper intake of these nutrients, the risks of heart attack and stroke become more common. In the elderly, the deficiency can result in a higher risk for bone brittleness that can result in fractures including those of the hip.

These are by no means the only effects of the disease either. A number of studies from the past ten years have also determined that the malnutrition caused by the condition can result in nervous system disorders, chronic fatigue, internal bleeding, and disorders of the gall bladder, liver, and spleen. As well, infertility and reproductive system disorders can occur. Lastly, the continued assault of the intestine by the immune system can result in intestinal cancer.

With all these serious potential problems arising from the condition, it is not surprising that different research efforts from the Swedish Orebro University Hospital and the Mayo Clinic have found that the risk of dying for those with undiagnosed celiac disease is roughly four times higher than for the rest of the population. Even worse, those with high levels of inflammation from the condition have the highest risk at 4.7 times the risk of dying. With the number of people diagnosed with the disease having quadrupled since the 1950’s, these risks are felt by an increasing percentage of the population.

Though the reasons for the increased rate of diagnosis of celiac disease are unknown, the possible causes range from more effective diagnostic techniques and greater awareness by doctors to more consumption of processed foods containing large amounts or even traces of gluten. Even environmental causes are being researched to explain the increase.

At this time, there is no treatment for celiac disease and eating a modified diet free of the grains wheat, oats, rye, and barley that contain gluten is only way to avoid the effects of the disease. Unfortunately, with so many people not knowing they have the condition and diagnosis of the condition being difficult, many people are suffering the effects of the condition without knowing.

In a subsequent article, better tests for identifying the condition and new research toward treating the condition will be covered.

Do you suffer from celiac disease and eat a gluten-free diet? Were you diagnosed late or early and how has that affected your day-to-day life. Share your stories with others in the health forums.

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