Saturday, May 06, 2006

What's the Deal About Wheat Intolerance?

(photo from here)

There is so much talk about wheat and gluten these days. Or perhaps I hear more of it because it's interesting to me. Various conflicting opinions are offered. Websites and information geared at food intolerant folks tend to emphasize how common the symptoms are - 15% of the population is estimated to be sensitive to either gluten or another component in wheat, and 33% to yeast, which composes most of the bread we eat. On the other hand, the British Nutrition Foundation reports that wheat intolerance is very uncommon. Naturally, none of these sites is unbiased, and as with other food issues, this one is highly political. Because wheat is a food staple and generates much income for the middlemen in the process of transferring it from the grower to the customer. For more info on these matters, do visit Parke Wilde's excellent blog, US Food Policy. But let's focus on wheat, for a minute.

There are a number of issues that could lead to bad symptoms when responding to bread, pasta and similar foods. It's important to distinguish them, though in real life it may not be that easy.

1. Wheat Allergy, like other food allergies, refers to immediate and drastic responses to the consumption of wheat, which could include anything from hives to vomiting to swelling to loss of consciousness. Read more about how to test for food allergies.

2. Wheat sensitivity, or intolerance, is apparently less drastic and much more common. The sensitivity could be an outcome of any of the following reasons:

(a) Gluten intolerance, with celiac being the most severe form. Celiac can be tested for, and apparently has been identified as a genetic problem and related to autoimmune diseases. Gluten is the protein which makes bread elastic and fluffy. Celiac, at its worst, can be extremely dangerous and lead to death.

(b) Yeast intolerance, which is sometimes confused with wheat intolerance, because the main way we consume wheat is through bread with yeast. Yeast infections of various kinds often involve the growth of unhealthy yeast in the colon, with candida being quite notorious in causing digestive problems, bloating, gas, fatigue and other symptoms. Candida problems, and other yeast related issues, are extremely difficult to diagnose, and conventional Western medicine will usually not be quick to detect and acknowledge them. One way nutritionists identify candida is using screening questionnaires, which can point them to a probability that the cause of suffering has to do with yeast. Here's one such questionnaire, from the informative website of Donna Gates, author of the well-researched and helpful book The Body Ecology Diet.

(c) Intolerance to other components of wheat. The wheat used all over the world nowadays is propagated by an extremely wealthy group of agribusinesses; and, as we now know, this was not always the case. In the attempt to modify wheat so that it can be easily grown in gargantual quantities, wheat was breeded and treated in certain ways which led it to become resilient and easily grown. Some folks may not respond well to these ways, and sometimes the intolerance emerges particularly from the fact that wheat has become so uniform and common as to make other forms of ancient wheat, like kamut and spelt, quite rare.

(d) Sometiems, the intolerance is not to wheat in itself, but to the various pesticides wheat is sprayed with. Obviously, this problem is not unique to wheat. The issue here is that the huge amounts in which wheat is grown probably involves economic considerations in choosing these pesticides. Again, in these issues it's difficult to find an unbiased opinion.

What's the deal, then? Are you sensitive to wheat or not? If one feels symptoms such as stomach ache, bloating, gas, abdominal discomfort, fatigue and extreme changes in weight, as well as cravings for sugar and starch, one should definitely seek the advice of both a doctor and a good holistic nutritionist. The latter will probably help you get on an elimination diet, which will help you learn more about the foods that agree and do not agree with you. Even if you are not sensitive to wheat, it's probably a good idea to vary your diet with various types of grain, as each of them offers different nutritional components.

Finally, to learn more about food intolerance, and digestive health in general, do read Elizabeth Lipsky's excellent book Digestive Wellness. It's a very good resource on various health issues and offers very helpful advice.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

hmmm, food (no pun intended) for thought on wheat issues. i hadn't thought of that angle lately, but i might try cutting out various wheat products and test the affects!
great job keeping up with the blog & having more yummy recipes. i laughed loudly at the yom haatzmaut BBQ description - we totally rebelled here in haifa and had sushi instead. oh, and yes, i hear you on how different vegetables look when they are straight from the farm - i can't remember which vegetable it was, but i was SO surprised that it grew on a stalk - i'd never seen it like that.
anyways..... keep it comin'!

anat

Shunra said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Shunra said...

Gluten intolerance is one of the more thought-provoking suspects in the world of autism research, as well.

Having read a book on the subject by Karyn Seroussi (who, with Lisa S. Lewis, runs the above-referenced website), I put into practice a GF/CF diet for my own particular marvel-of-autism. He only stayed on it for three months (a visit to his father ended the participation) but the response was quite visible: all of his tics ("stims", or self-stimulating behavior: hand flapping, pulling on his left ear again and againa and again and..., much of the rocking or vestibular-system, etc.) disappeared. They have been slow to return - some have not returned at all.

With autism spectrum disorders hitting more and more children, the gluten issue really needs to be researched further.

(And yeah, gluten-free is hard to do... ...but so is dealing with a kid with autism...)

Hadar said...

Hey, ladies! Yeah, the wheat thing apparently has overreaching influence over quite a variety of things. It's pleasant to hear that one can improve symptoms of autism with a gluten-free diet. And when you get used to it, it's not that difficult. The most tricky thing one has to deal with is usually to find solutions for the absence of the quintessential sandwich - like a salad, or some steamed grains and vegetables, in a plastic container.

Hadar said...

Oh, and hurrah on the sushi rebellion, Anat! You rule!

Barbara said...

I have a friend who has celiac, and she suffered for years before one doctor, out of the many she had gone to see, thought to do the simple blood test.

Then, all of her digestive issues suddenly became clear. But, she suffered for years, basically of malnutrition to a greater and lesser degree, simply because her body could not digest food, because her reactions to gluten had degraded her digestive system to such an acute degree.

It is scary stuff, and it is apparetly quite normal for sufferers from celiac to go undiagnosed for years, and to have puzzled doctors misdiagnose them as having Crohn's disease, or IBS or even worse, to say it is an emotional problem.

Hadar said...

Hey, Barbara! Great to see you here!
Yes, celiac often gets undiagnosed until adulthood, and leads to a lot of physical suffering and misunderstandings. And the medical confusion, leading them to mistakenly diagnose celiac as emotional problems, is quite common, as the symptoms naturally influence your psyche. Talk about mind-body connection - digestive issues influence your mood almost instantly.

Anonymous said...

Hi, my name is Tricia and I seem to have an issue with wheat. The odd thing is that I can tolerate spelt just fine. When I eat wheat, I get gasey and bloated every time. How is it that I can have spelt, but not wheat. What is the ingredient in Wheat that I am having problems with. Also, I started taking some Standard Process supplements and started having the gasey symptom and found out it had de-fatted wheat germ in it. Can anyone offer anything about this?