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There probably is no such thing as gluten intolerance, study shows

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This is one of those science stories where it gives to show that even scientists can be biased and, most of all, that it’s only when you stand-up and become willing to contradict yourself that you come closer to the truth. Peter Gibson, a professor of gastroenterology at Monash University and director of the GI Unit at The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne, Australia, published in 2011 a paper that suggested gluten triggers gastrointestinal distress in patients without celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder unequivocally triggered by gluten. Since then, a whole frenzy around gluten-free diets has risen and, of course, a multi-billion dollar industry. Three years later, Gibson concludes that gluten isn’t the likely culprit, but a combination of psychological factors and other food stuff (preservatives, poorly absorbed carbo-hydrates, etc).

Non-celic gluten sensitivity: myth and fallacy

The gluten-free mania has grown to tremendous proportions in the past few years, with 30% of Americans stating they’d like to eat less-gluten. Consequently, sales of gluten-free products have soured to the point they’re expected to reach $15 billion by 2016 or 50% more than in 2013. Clearly, people care about their health. It’s unclear, however, that gluten is the culprit.

When Gibson and his team first reached their conclusions they were pretty strict about their experiments, performing them double-blinded, randomized, and placebo-controlled. Still, the research was unable to come up with tantalizing clues as to why the gluten was causing these observed physiological changes. This bugged Gibson, so he set out to perform an even stricter study, one where less variables are at play.

He recruited 37 subjects, all of whom self-professed having gluten sensitivity and who were confirmed to not have celiac’s disease. For two weeks they were fed a diet low in FODMAPs (poorly absorbed short-chain carbohydrates), then were given one of three diets for a week: 16 grams per day of added gluten (high-gluten), 2 grams of gluten and 14 grams of whey protein isolate (low-gluten), or 16 grams of whey protein isolate (placebo). Each subject shuffled through every single diet so that they could serve as their own controls, and none ever knew what specific diet he or she was eating.

The nocebo

Again, Gibson and team want to be really strict this time, so the researchers asked 22 of the original study participants to shuffle through the three different diets for three days each.

The researchers found that each treatment diet, whether it included gluten or not, prompted subjects to report a worsening of gastrointestinal symptoms to similar degrees. In other words, it was all in their heads! In their minds they were expecting not to feel good, so their body acted accordingly. Even in the second experiment, when the placebo diet was identical to the baseline diet, the subjects still reported pain, bloating, nausea, and gas when in fact nothing of the sorts should have happened. The finding led Gibson to the opposite conclusion of his 2011 research:

“In contrast to our first study… we could find absolutely no specific response to gluten.”

If this is the case why do so many people report feeling much better after changing to a gluten-free diet? Jessica Biesiekierski, a gastroenterologist at Monash University and lead author of the study alongside Gibson, noted that when participants consumed the baseline low-FODMAP diet, almost all reported that their symptoms improved!

“Reduction of FODMAPs in their diets uniformly reduced gastrointestinal symptoms and fatigue in the run-in period, after which they were minimally symptomatic.”

One of the most important sources of FODMAPs are bread products which are the first to be removed under a gluten-free diet. This means that coincidentally when people chose a particular diet for a particular reason (no-gluten), they were actually feeling the beneficial effects caused by some other reason (no-FODMAPs).

Scientific reference paper

8 thoughts on “There probably is no such thing as gluten intolerance, study shows

  1. KSV

    Bad science. For the gluten sensitive inflammation lasts as long as four months. In this study everyone tried all the diets on a close rotating basis.This meant that all who were gluten sensitive were re-sensitized to gluten after the first week (for the controls, assuming there was a 4 month washout, which we cannot assume) or for the entire study. Antibody cascades last for up to four months.

    By rotating her subjects through the diets weekly and for the final run after 3 days each she muddied the pool irrevocably.

    Also NCGS symptoms tend to be non-GI symptoms once the intestinal tight
    junctions are permeated via inflammation, so she wasn’t necessarily
    looking for the right symptoms. Brain fog, joint pain, headaches,
    psychological reactions and other non-gut symptoms are typical and were
    not evaluated.

    She also has little understanding of NCGS if she thinks that the amount of gluten matters. Once a person has this degree of damage, any amount stimulates an inflammatory cascade.

    Which isn’t to say that FODMAPs and preservatives aren’t also triggers or that people might not be reacting to other inflammatory triggers that often accompany gluten. I also wonder about the suitability of whey as a control since there is a lot of dairy allergy.

    The research I have seen suggests that we ALL experience inflammation from consuming gluten and similar lectins from grains, our immune system helps out bodies recover and we go on with no problem. Until one day we cross some threshold and we can’t recover and create a stronger reaction that can play into AI disease and other symptoms which somewhat depend on where the body is weakest. Our total stress burden is high between high gluten hybrids, GMOs, low vitality nonlocal food, bad medicine and the economy, so more people don’t bounce back. That means that more people are sensitized to gluten (and dairy and soy, etc.) And once sensitized there may not be a way back.

  2. KSV

    And if it is a combination of proteins found grains, not gluten alone, then there is no change to a gluten-free diet.

  3. ENDGAME

    SWEET JESUS I love my homemade breads and oh-so-thick pizza crust and yes I do notice changes after I have eaten them. Will I stop … will I switch to a gluten free version …hell no. I do sometimes break out with a candida rash on my skin, but I have found adding 2 drops daily of Oregano essential oil to a cup of tea fixes that problem. it’s caused by a bacteria bloom in your gut. Oregano essential oil kills that bloom. End of story. Final answer, experiment. You are your own best doctor. You know your body. Do what works for you. I am a layman herbalist, I make my own remedies based on what I have learned and what I know works for me. I do not claim to have your answers, but I do know that I have found mine. Personally, when there is a buck to be made by some “health care professional” who is endorsing some uber expensive-not covered-by-your-health-care drug, i tend to go back to basics. Did you know that there is a homeopathic recipe for virtually every drug on the market. Antivirals, antifungals, Antimicrobials, Antibacterials, even recipes to help shrink cancers.. to prevent them that don’t make you loose your hair! Doctors will tell you that what I am saying is wrong…say they won’t work..largely because doctors can’t bill you for buying the ingredients at your local supermarket and using them and they won’t get their kick-back from the pharmaceutical companies. GET ON-LINE or into your local Library or hell, get in touch with me. Knowledge is meant to be shared and it’s meant to be free. AND IT IS!

  4. dayna

    Any change in diet can worsen your intestinal tract. Stupid study. It takes time to adjust

  5. Julie K.

    I’m laughing out loud at the arrogance!! This study is absolutely false. It’s not even worth the argument.

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