You Gotta Get Gluten Out of Your Gut
When it comes to eating healthy, too much fat, sugar and cholesterol definitely top the “most unwanted” list. Now gluten is right up there, too. Although some critics say the public obsession with gluten is an overblown and passing fad (after all, gluten is a protein that has been a natural component of rye, barley and wheat for centuries), there’s good reason to go gluten free. Why? Because today’s gluten is a far cry from nature’s gluten. It is super gluten, a byproduct of the genetically modified “Franken Wheat” created to combat world hunger. Over the past 50 years, willowy long-stem shafts of wheat have been manipulated into a shorter, stubbier, higher-yielding hybrid known as “dwarf wheat”—and it is loaded with starch and gluten. While gluten-rich dwarf wheat has saved millions from starvation, it has wreaked havoc on the diets of the well-fed—especially in the United States.
Individuals who are extremely sensitive to gluten may have celiac disease—an autoimmune disease that can cause a litany of digestive, nerve and brain disorders. But now there is growing evidence that individuals who suffer from Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis and the hard-to-treat irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) are likely to be gluten sensitive—even though they do not exhibit the classic signs of celiac disease.
“Even though lab tests are often inconclusive, probably 70 percent of patients who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome are actually gluten sensitive,” says Anna Toker, M.D., a board-certified colon and rectal surgeon with USMD Hospital at Arlington. “If you have gut pain, bloating, gas and loose bowel movements, but all your lab tests are normal, go gluten free. It works more often than any medicine I can prescribe.”
Dr. Toker’s says many of her IBS patients have noted a remarkable change in the way they feel and experience fewer symptoms after eliminating gluten-rich wheat bread, pasta and other foods from their diet. Eating gluten free is much easier now than it used to be. A growing number of food manufacturers are making more gluten-free products. More and more grocery store staples boast “gluten free” labels and stickers. If you are unsure about whether or not a food is truly gluten free, carefully read its food label. Not only do food manufacturers use super gluten to make bread rise quickly, they often use it to flavor, thicken and preserve processed foods. If you see “dextrin” listed as an ingredient on a food label, it is chock-full of gluten.
While adopting a gluten-free diet is a proactive step you can take to help improve your digestive health, don’t forgo regular medical checkups and attention when you have abnormal symptoms. If you are experiencing persistent belly cramping or pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea or loose bowel movements, consult your physician. And don’t shy away from routine preventative tests such as colonoscopies designed to detect problems early when there is the best chance for successful treatment.
“Every year nearly 60,000 people die of colon cancer, and about 40,000 of them waited until they had belly cramping and other symptoms before they had a colonoscopy,” says Dr. Toker.