Sunday, October 2, 2016

Not the Whole Story on Gluten Research

Recently I read an article in the Business Insider - Australia about a gluten sensitivity research project.  The article written by Jennifer Welsh called ‘Researchers Who Provided Key Evidence for Gluten Sensitivity Have Thoroughly Shown it Doesn’t Exist’ couldn’t have sounded more smug or condescending.  After reading the actual research quoted I felt she had misinterpreted the findings which others would read and accept as truth.  It infuriated me.  It is difficult to go gluten free and I don’t believe people are trying it willy-nilly just to be on the new fad diet.

I need to go back to my story for a minute – I was diagnosed with Seronegative Rheumatoid Arthritis over a dozen years ago.  I’ve been as sugar-free as possible for several years after my rheumatologist advised it, telling me sugar increases inflammation.  It was the beginning of an anti-inflammatory diet I’ve tried to maintain.  This year in January,  I started a gluten-free diet when I was having some serious stomach issues.  Since then, I have been subjected to much eye rolling, backhanded nasty comments and smirks about how ‘everyone’ is getting to be gluten sensitive.  I now try to hide my eating habits so that I don’t have to be subjected to other people’s opinions.  The comments like when I started my sugar free diet, “No one can go sugar free.” And “You know having a cookie won’t kill you,” have just morphed into more derision from people who don’t believe in gluten sensitivities.  I just wanted to have some days where I didn’t feel as if I had the stomach flu.  Just a few.  I knew it wouldn’t cure me.

I was extremely doubtful when I started my diet that cutting out gluten could do anything for stomach issues I have had ever since I could remember.  My mother told me a story about a time she took me out to eat, just her and I.  She said I was so excited but as I stood next to her on the front seat in the car, I turned to her and said, “But I don’t have to eat, right?”
I have believed saltine crackers were the way to settle my stomach for years so how could it possibly be that I couldn’t eat flour?  I had diarrhea every day without fail for years.  (I know, too much information, but unless you understand where people start from you can’t understand their journey.)  I am just turning 50 but I already have osteoporosis and it’s getting worse faster than they can understand even though I eat dairy and take supplements.  It’s really no wonder though if none of my food can be metabolized.

Sometimes, I wish I were diagnosed with Celiac disease.  I know how awful that sounds.  If you have Celiac though, everyone understands you cannot have any gluten.  If you say gluten sensitive though, you see people look across at one another with raised eyebrows.  They might as well say out loud, “You’re one of those people, the hypochondriacs.”  Then come the questions, “So what exactly happens when you eat wheat?”   Now I have a dilemma.  I know that politeness requires that I not get into the gritty details but the imp in me instigates making them feel uncomfortable for asking.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not impolite or wrong to ask questions if you are interested, only if you are trying to determine whether or not I really need to eat gluten-free.

After about a week on the gluten-free diet the constant pains in my stomach started to subside as did the other stomach complaints.   After several weeks the pains in my joints were lessened, especially my elbows.  This unbelievable diet seemed to be working.  I was awestruck.   I questioned whether gluten-free was really responsible for my improvement.  So occasionally, I would have a piece of bread or cake and within an hour or two I was in the bathroom and the symptoms lasted a day or two.  I was hooked.   Now, I don’t know if it’s the gluten, yeast or something else in these products but for some reason my body isn’t processing it like it should.

Now back to the article that brought me to telling this story.  I’d like to refute a few things from her article.  First - The research included 37 people.  37.  Second - “Subjects would be provided with every single meal.”  That is if the subjects are confined so we are positive they didn’t eat anything except what was provided.  Third - they offered a placebo which I believe was whey, which gluten sensitive people are often also sensitive to.  Fourth – it was a very short test, I believe 9 days and often gluten sensitivities take longer to show up.  Lastly, they removed the "certain preservatives like benzoates, propionate, sulfites, and nitrites, and fermentable, poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates, also known as FODMAPs" – which we can’t remove from our bread or other gluten products in the real world so if those are the culprits we have to eliminate gluten from our diets anyway.

She ends her article with ‘You can go ahead and smell your bread and eat it too. Science. It Works.’  Even if we follow the logic that gluten isn’t the problem, if you actually read the results of the study you will see they do say it could be the FODMAPs in the gluten or even the FODMAPs in combination with gluten causing symptoms and that “much, much more research is needed” before making any decisions.

After all, we all know science never gets it wrong.  Wait--didn’t they put the decimal point in the wrong place when documenting the health benefits of spinach?  Oh yes, eggs are bad for you—no, they are good.  Margarine is much better for you than butter—wrong, margarine is the bad guy.  It’s nearly impossible to control all the variables in studies.

I can’t account for all of the inconsistencies in the study, although if they had the gluten containing products in the first part of the study it could take weeks or months for the symptoms to diminish.  In that case it may not be just a psychological action of thinking you will feel sick so you do.

But no matter the reason someone has decided to go gluten-free, if it makes them feel better physically, shouldn’t we accept their decision and be happy they are finding a medicine-free way to address the symptoms they are experiencing?  I happen to think so.

Let’s not pass judgment on people who have found physical benefits by trying a gluten-free diet.  The nature of thorough scientific research requires repeatable, large sample studies under varied conditions.  Knowledge evolves as more information is uncovered.  One 37-sample study may provide a sensational click-bait sound byte for Jennifer Welsh, but I will go with what works for me while the real scientists continue to uncover the whole story.

To read the entire article by Ms. Welsh click here -  Researchers Who Provided Key Evidence for Gluten Sensitivity Have Thoroughly Shown it Doesn’t Exist’

To read the research paper directly click here - Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity May Not Exist 


Pam Fick-Gerster said...

For years I differed with bloating, acne, back aches and other health issues. I had pneumonia, sinus infections or bronchitis ever few months. I felt 100 years old. I gave up sugar and gluten and started feeling better within a week. I am a believer in gluten free! I no longer feel like I'm 100. I also get looks and comments from people but I ignore them now. Some don't deserve a response

Aubrey Wynne said...

I have to say, I'm appalled by the article. People should be able to do what is right for them without a roll of the eyes. I have a friend who had gone through so many tests to find out why her digestive system was so painfully out of whack. Nothing. She self-diagnosed herself with a gluten sensitivity. She can now control her bouts easily.

Jill Bisker said...

Thanks Aubrey and Pam for commenting! I appreciate you both sharing your personal experiences! It seems like so many people are struggling right now and it is always interesting to me when there is an alternative that doesn't involve medications! (and when diagnosed symptoms can be resolved with dietary changes!)