A Brief History on the Gluten Disaster
By: Trish Pearce, Metabolic Care Coordinator- Beyer Natural Health Solutions
Are you familiar with The Simpson’s? Most people are. Each episode follows the same general template: the opening scene, a plot full of unexpected (and hilarious) twists and turns, and an ending that (unless you saw the first few minutes of the show,) seemingly makes no sense at all! Think about it…you have never turned on the TV and caught the last few minutes of an episode that you’ve never seen before without thinking, “Huh?!” Why do the writers do that? Are they just quirky? Well, yes, obviously. But it’s a good strategy, isn’t it? How could you ever truly understand the plot of ANY story without knowing the beginning?
It is impossible to understand the impact gluten has had on our health (and the health of our pets!) without understanding the history behind it and the series of events that lead to new research showing that EVERYONE is gluten sensitive, with 1/3 of the population being symptomatic at any given time. Not to mention the endangerment and possible EXTINCTION of a once well-known and common dog breed. To understand the enemy, we must look into our not-so-distant past and decide what choices were made by our ancestors that allowed such a silently spreading epidemic that is virtually IGNORED by our medical community. We must ask the following questions: Where did gluten come from? What is gluten, exactly? How does gluten affect our health? Who is affected by it? And last, but not least, where the heck DID all the Irish Setters go? (Have you noticed you don’t see many around anymore?)
Humanity has been around, in our current flattering form, for approximately two million years (wow, good for us!) The earliest humans were “hunter-gatherers,” which consumed, for the most part, freshly killed game meat and whatever fruits and vegetables were found lying around. Depending on your beliefs: God, Mother Nature, or Evolution designed our bodies to consume this rather plain fare in the belief that we would adhere strictly to our diets. But, alas, ancient humans, like modern ones, have a hard time sticking to one diet for too long. The ancient peoples of Mesopotamia were able to last until about 10,000-15,000 years ago when agriculture of the DISTANT ancestor of our current wheat grain was developed. His name was Einkorn, and he was a simple guy. So simple, in fact, that it’s postulated that our modern day celiacs could snack on him with absolutely no adverse affects! Uh, come again? It’s true! Modern humans have genetically altered and processed the original wheat grain to the point where it went from a seemingly innocuous, average food source to AN ABSOLUTE MONSTER THAT IS DESTROYING OUR HEALTH!
Geez, Einkorn, what did they do to you? Well, humanity is not known for it’s ability to leave well-enough alone, and instead of leaving wheat to remain in its intended design, we decided to tamper with its genetics (some higher power must be FED UP with us.) Early Germanic tribes began a process called cross-pollenization (early genetic modification), which basically means they created hybrids by reproducing different, although closely related, species of wheat. Why? Well, who likes crumbly, crumby bread? Our ancestors certainly didn’t, so they bred different varieties of wheat in order to create a perfect, delicious loaf of bread. Mission accomplished! But what they didn’t know WOULD end up hurting them, and all the generations that came after them! What didn’t they know?
THE TRAIT THEY WERE BREEDING FOR WAS GLUTEN. Gluten is the protein in wheat that gives bread its sticky quality, its lovely ability to rise into a distinct shape, not tear when we scrape a butter knife full of mayonnaise across it, and its delicious consistency. Unfortunately, those wonderful aspects of bread require BOATLOADS of gluten. We’re talking toxic levels, here. In fact, do you know what most industrial adhesives are made out of? Gluten protein. No, seriously. (Casein, or cow’s milk protein, is used as well. That’s why there is a picture of a cow on Elmer’s glue. But we’ll save casein’s story for another day.)
So…what does a protein that is often used for industrial strength, water proof adhesives do to our fragile insides which were meant for a simple diet of meat, vegetables, and the occasional fruits and nuts? It does exactly what you would think. It sticks. Specifically, it liberally coats the first thing it encounters after leaving your stomach, your duodenum, and then makes its oozing way into your small intestine, where your body absorbs all the nutrients from the foods you eat. (Wait a second…my stomach is loaded with acid! There’s no way this stuff can escape a hydrochloric acid bath! Actually, yes, it does. Gluten, along with other proteins like casein, doesn’t dissolve in acid. They only dissolve in alkaline and alcohol based solutions. Phew, good thing you had that glass of wine with dinner, right?) The body absorbs all of its nutrients, that is, vitamins and minerals, fats, proteins, and sugars, through tiny, finger-like projections lining the inside of your intestine called villi. Each villus has a special job, like little villagers. One villager harvests calcium, another, protein, another, vitamin D. Aw, how cute! They are extremely efficient at their jobs until, WHAM. They are coated in sticky protein. Could you do your job covered in glue? I couldn’t.
The best case scenario is that your little villagers get coated in glue and can no longer work. The worst case scenario is that your body’s clean-up crew, your immune system, mounts an attack. On you. Or rather, your villagers. See, your immune system sends guys called antibodies whose job is to target the sticky protein covering the villi and eliminate it. These guys are highly efficient but, the problem is, they can be a bit over-zealous. Rather than simply wash the glue off the villi (it’s not that easy, see) they might just annihilate the little guys entirely! Oh, no! Now you are not absorbing nutrients efficiently. But it gets worse. What if the unsuspecting person just KEEPS EATING GLUTEN? Again, the answer is intuitive. Eventually, the immune system will destroy every single villager in small intestine town. What’s the medical diagnosis for this condition? CELIAC DISEASE. Actually, the immune system might just bomb the town for good measure, leaving actual holes in the intestinal lining. What’s the medical term for that one? LEAKY GUT SYNDROME. By the end of the barrage, the entire body is in crisis mode. Once there are holes in your small intestine, and “enemy molecules” (yes, GLUTEN, in addition to lots of other bad stuff) start leaking out, your immune system has basically declared martial law. Antibodies will attack gluten and EVERYTHING IN YOUR BODY THAT LOOKS LIKE GLUTEN. Some of your cells look like gluten! RIP, cells. What does the medical community call this one? It’s a bit more general now that multiple organ systems of your body are involved. They call it auto-immune disease. Wait, why are we still eating gluten? Because donuts are worth it! Eh…maybe not.
Current research shows that one in thirty-three people in the general population have the genetics that predispose them to celiac disease. Remember, you are only considered celiac AFTER every single one of your villagers has died. This is termed “total villous atrophy.” But, what if your villagers are in the PROCESS of being obliterated? What if your body is making antibodies but hasn’t quite reached crisis mode? The line between general gluten sensitivity and celiac disease is rather blurry. Most people wouldn’t know the difference. Your body might be mounting an immune attack against gluten, but you haven’t had total villous atrophy. Are you still feeling the effects? Certainly. Should you stop eating gluten? OF COURSE. Do you call the fire department when you see the first whiff of smoke in your house, or do you wait until the entire thing has burned to the ground and the fire begins to spread to your neighbors’ houses?
So…what the heck DID happen to all the Irish Setters? First of all, consider the fact that the pet food companies have been making grain based food since their inception. It started with corn meal, which is an obvious choice. American farmers grow LOTS of corn and there’s often a surplus. Then, 10-15 years ago, China figured out how to grow its own wheat supply and stopped importing ours. Uh oh. Wheat glut. The pet food industry bought up wheat grain for pennies on the dollar and began making foods that were wheat grain based. What makes you think pets aren’t gluten sensitive? Moreover, what makes you think that animals that were designed to eat MEAT, and meat ALONE, should be eating kibble that’s made out of grain? Of course, that’s silly. Pets these days just don’t seem as hearty as they used to, do they? They experience all sorts of crazy health problems, from inexplicable allergies to cancer to chronic diarrhea (I would know, I was a vet tech for 5 years!) Have you made the connection? Or are you still doubtful?
Remember the Irish setter? Used to be a fairly common breed, you might see a handful for every 20 labrador retrievers, sure! Don’t see many of them anymore, do you? In the years I worked as a vet tech I never saw ONE, and I saw such rare specimens as hairless cats and Irish wolfhounds! The setter has even been added to the AKC’s list of “endangered breeds” which means they have fewer than 300 annual registrations. What the….? They’ve been on the list for a little over 10 years! What happened 10-15 years ago to the pet food industry, again? Get ready for it…here it comes…Irish Setters are celiacs.
That’s where they all went.