The Common Disease No One Knows About
By Marcel J. Hernandez, N.D.
The caller to my office had a tone of urgency in her voice: “I know it’s not an emergency, Doctor Marcel, but I’m in such discomfort that I need to see you as soon as I can.” I found a space in my schedule for her the next afternoon.
Lily, a computer programmer, was single and in her late 20’s, but when she walked into my office I would have guessed her age to be between 35 and 40. Her skin was pasty, her eyes and hair were dull, her posture was concave and she moved slowly and listlessly. From a naturopathic perspective, her “vital force” was low.
Lily told me that for entire life she has dealt in various ways with bloating, cramping, constipation, low-grade depression and fatigue, but only lately had her condition reached the point when at times her abdominal distress caused her to double over in discomfort. To compound matters, she had started developing pain and stiffness in her hands that had begun to limit her ability to function effectively on a computer keyboard.
She had seen three different physicians in the recent past, all of whom had told her that her physical symptoms were caused by her stressed-out mental state. She gave me a list of the different mood elevating drugs she had tried, without relief.
Lily’s symptoms could have been caused by a number of conditions, but I had a hunch about what was going on and a simple blood test confirmed my suspicions.
Gluten intolerance, gluten sensitive enteropathy, sprue and celiac disease are all terms which indicate a malabsorption syndrome caused by an inflammatory reaction in the lining of the small intestine to gliadin, a complex protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Gluten is what makes flour from these grains sticky so that baked goods hold together instead of crumbling apart. For people with gluten intolerance, the absorptive lining of the small intestine is damaged, resulting in an inability to absorb fat, protein, vitamins, and minerals. Vitamin B-12 absorption is especially compromised. B-12 is essential for a host cellular functions, including the body’s manufacture of red blood cells, nervous system components, and neurotransmitters. Researchers say that there are millions of undiagnosed cases of gluten intolerance in the United States alone.
The reason diagnosis of gluten intolerance is often missed is that physicians are distracted by the plethora of symptoms and conditions caused by malabsorption. There are dozens, possibly hundreds, of gluten intolerance symptoms. Unfortunately, no one symptom is specifically characteristic of this common ailment. In addition to intestinal symptoms, common manifestations include:
- severe skin conditions,
- bone, joint, or muscle pain,
- delayed or disrupted menstrual cycles,
- headaches (including migraines),
- inability to concentrate,
- growth abnormalities,
- tingling and leg numbness,
- weight loss or gain,
- easy bruising,
- seizures and many others.
There is only one therapeutic approach to gluten intolerance: a lifelong avoidance of anything that contains gluten. This is not as simple as taking the offending grains out of the diet since gluten-containing grains are used in the processing of many foods. For example, terms found on food labels that may mean that there is gluten in the product include hydrolyzed vegetable protein, malt modified starch or modified food starch, vegetable gum, soy sauce, stabilizer, flavoring and emulsifier. A more complete guide to gluten-containing foods may be found by going to the web site found at the end of this article.
Lily’s blood test clearly indicated a sensitivity to gluten. After a lifetime of being a heavy wheat eater, it took her about a month for her hands to start limbering up. After about seven weeks, her intestinal symptoms had almost completely disappeared. Along with her health renaissance, her overall appearance changed dramatically as well. The last time I saw her we ran into each other in a health food store. She had married and was talking about starting a family.
Dr. Hernandez is happy to address your health-related issues in his column. He may be contacted at hawaiind@BigIsland.net