Why Are So Many People Talking About Celiac Disease?

You don’t have to be taking a Primal Challenge to know that celiac disease is bad, and becoming all-too-common.  Consider the USA Today feature from this week, Celiac disease on the rise in the U.S.

According to the piece, celiac is growing at an alarming rate: quintupling since the 1950s, and doubling every 15 years since 1974.  A quick Google Trends search shows how popular discussion is on this topic.

So what exactly is celiac disease? 

Simply put, celiac disease causes your body to attack its own cells in your gut.  The symptoms can include fatigue, depression, stomach pain, bloatedness, diarrhea and/or constipation, bone defects, and small intestine cancer.

But that’s not all.  Celiac disease has been linked to miscarriages, infertility, growth failure and pubertal delay in children, autism, abnormal liver function, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid Arthritis, lupus, narcolepsy, schizophrenia, Duhring’s Disease (skin irritation and potentially blistering), Vitiligo (skin depigmentation), Hyposplenism (a small and underactive spleen), Hypothyroidism (inadequate production of thyroid hormone), IgA deficiency, Porphyria (enzyme disorder), Huntington’s disease (a neurodegenerative genetic disorder that affects muscle coordination and leads to cognitive decline and dementia), and Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  (See also.)

What causes celiac disease?  

Eating grains.  Specifically, grains containing the protein gluten, which includes wheat, rye, barley and even oats.  The only known cure is removing grains from your diet.

Okay, but I don’t think I have celiac disease.   Then it’s okay for me to eat grains, right?

Not so fast.   Grain irritation isn’t binary.   It’s not “I’m fine and can eat grains all I want” or “I have celiac disease and can never eat grains.”  Rather, grain irritation exists on a spectrum, with celiac disease at one end, and most of us falling somewhere in between.  

I should note as an aside that there are more reasons why grains are unhealthy.  (Notably their effect on insulin, weight gain and metabolic syndrome.)  But that’s the subject of another post.  

Why does this happen?

As Robb Wolf succinctly puts it:  Because grains are pissed that you want to eat them and they are willing, and able, to fight back.

The longer version, courtesy of Mark Sisson:

Living things generally do not want to be consumed by other living things. Being digested, for the most part, tends to interrupt survival, procreation, propagation of the species – you know, standard stuff that fauna and flora consider pretty important . . . [A]nimals have active defense mechanisms. They run, fight, jump, climb, fly, sting, bite, and even appeal to our emotions (if you’ve ever seen a puppy beg for a treat with sad eyes, you know that isn’t just accidental cuteness) in order to survive. All the while, predators are constantly evolving and generating adaptations.

Plants, though, are passive organisms without the ability to move, think, and react (for the most part). They must employ different tactics to ensure propagation, and they generally have to rely on outside forces to spread their seed. And so various methods are “devised” to dissuade consumption long enough for the seed to get to where it’s going. Nuts have those tough shells, and grains have the toxic anti-nutrients, lectins, gluten, and phytates. (Of course there are some obvious exceptions. Fruits are tasty, nutritious, and delicious so that animals will eat them whole and poop out the seeds, preferably into some fertile soil. The seed stays intact throughout the digestive process; it is indigestible by design. No seed “wants” to be digested, because this would defeat the purpose. They “want” to be swallowed, or borne by the wind, or carried by a bee to the next flower, but they do not want to be digested.)

Some animals are clearly adapted to grain consumption. Birds, rodents, and some insects can deal with the anti-nutrients. Humans, however, cannot. Perhaps if grains represented a significant portion of our ancestral dietary history, things might be a bit different. Some of us can digest dairy, and we’ve got the amylase enzyme present in our saliva to break down starches if need be, but we simply do not have the wiring necessary to mitigate the harmful effects of lectins, gluten, and phytate.

What should I do?

Here’s a test for you.   For one month, eat gluten-free.   Absolutely no grains.  If you’re taking the Primal Challenge, this means 100% compliance to the No Gluten Rule (you can still do 80% for everything else).   When your month is up, see how you feel.   If there’s no observable difference, then maybe your body doesn’t get irritated by grains.   (Of course, by eating grains you’ll still be likely to spike your insulin and gain weight.)

But chances are, going grain free just might make you feel better.   Perhaps remarkably so.

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About Bob Ewing

On twitter @DCBarefootRun. Media guy for libertarian law firm by day, primal/paleo (rocking climbing, BJJ, barefooter) by, well, lunchtime... https://theprimalchallenge.wordpress.com/ http://DCBarefootRun.com
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2 Responses to Why Are So Many People Talking About Celiac Disease?

  1. Dan B says:

    Robb Wolf need to read Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan. It talks all about how plants do want to be useful, i.e. grains being tasty and nutritious. Therefore, intellegent animals like humans will value the grain’s worth and help propagate it. This is exactly what a plant wants, and is very similar to fruits and other sweet and useful plants. Sure, some may be eaten and destroyed, but if the plant is particularly useful, animals will find a way to ensure the species survives.

    The rest of this article makes very good points though.

    • Bob Ewing says:

      Thanks Dan! The Botany of Desire is one of my favorite books. Pollan gave a good TED talk on it: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/michael_pollan_gives_a_plant_s_eye_view.html

      I think Robb Wolf’s point was clarified in the Sisson quote, that plants have a symbiotic (to use Pollan’s term) relationship with animals to spread their seeds, but the seeds aren’t meant to be digested. Just spread. When humans try to digest seeds containing gluten, therefore not spreading the seeds, then we get “attacked” by the plants, much like poison ivy “attacks” us when we brush up against it.

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