Gluten is the root cause of serious disease in so many people – and yet the solution is cost-free and easy – and you can still eat wild rice!

This 79-year-old lady did not want to attend the clinic in view of the current Covid-19 lockdown, but did want to continue her follow-up.  I suggested we meet on Zoom.  She was not sure if she had the skills to cope with online activity, but said she would get her grandson to help.

So, I sent the Zoom invite, but agreed that the mobile phone was an alternative.  Starting the Zoom meeting, to my great amusement, I found my patient in the waiting room.  This made me consider not only how much we rely on technology, but also how Covid-19 has changed medical practice.

The lady and I focused straightaway on a few areas in her extensive medical history.  As a teenager, she was very lethargic and suffered with severe upper respiratory tract symptoms, like hay fever and recurrent sinusitis.

An interesting question came into my mind: what if I could have met this patient 70 years ago?  What would have been the most important piece of advice I could have offered her – to prevent her subsequent multi-system symptoms from happening?

The answer was simple: I would advise her to eliminate gluten from her diet!

In this blog, I will discuss how these innocent little pieces of bread, pasta and morning cereals can wreak havoc in anyone’s life, including my own.  I will restrict the scope of this article to the symptoms my patient presented with, as gluten-related diseases constitute a huge area of medicine.  

My patient started to have symptoms of hay fever as a child, progressed to acid reflux, and was diagnosed with peptic ulcer at an early age.  She went on to have chronic respiratory and urinary symptoms.

She had symptoms suggestive of chronic yeast in the upper respiratory tract, characterised by a recurrent sinus infection, expanding to the surrounding structures.  She had been very sensitive to loud noise.  At the same time, she received treatment for recurrent vaginal thrush and urinary tract infections.

She continued to suffer with severe migraines and developed emotional symptoms.  Her anxiety went through the roof – she became fearful and developed various phobias, which progressed to panic attacks.

She got married and unfortunately developed toxaemia of pregnancy (pre-eclampsia) with very high blood pressure during her first pregnancy at the age of 23.  She continued to suffer with aches and pains, and was later diagnosed with skin cancer (moles.)

She was also extremely fatigued and developed symptoms of angina (chest pain on effort) and shortness of breath.  Heart cardiogram confirmed irregular heart rhythm (atrial fibrillation) and further investigation with echocardiogram revealed that her aortic valve was too narrow.  She underwent open heart surgery in 2002 for a metallic aortic valve replacement.  Following the procedure, she was prescribed long-term warfarin (blood thinner agent), routinely prescribed with the metallic heart valve.

Gluten-free, her symptoms plummeted from 125 to 50

Unfortunately, in 2016, her replacement valve got clogged and she was rushed to hospital for another replacement, this time a tissue (pig) valve.  She lost heartbeat following the surgery, so an urgent cardiac pacemaker was inserted.  Unfortunately, the procedure was complicated by a pneumothorax (air collection in the lung), and she had to stay in intensive care unit (ITU) for a long period of time.

While in the ITU, my patient experienced a condition known as amaurosis fugax (brief total blindness in one eye), suggestive of a minor stroke (TIA.)  This was followed by loss of speech for a few minutes and her doctors decided to continue warfarin indefinitely, in view of the possible stroke.  Unlike metallic values, tissue valves are not routinely covered by anticoagulant (warfarin) therapy.

My patient continued to have migraines, her vision deteriorated, and she was diagnosed with kidney stones, complicated by recurrent urinary infections, for most of her life.

I saw this patient a couple of months ago in the clinic, and, in view of her prolonged and complex medical history, I advised her to come off gluten, supporting her with a prescription from mother nature – real food of fruits and vegetables, beans, nuts and seeds, together with dietary supplements.

I was very pleased to see her follow-up symptoms profile had improved significantly.  She initially scored very highly in her symptom profile with 125.  In just over three months, this plummeted to 50, a wonderful achievement for this 79-year-old lady.

I believe that gluten (a protein mainly in wheat, rye, oats and barley) is the cause of my patient’s multi-system symptoms, which continued for over 70 years.  In this article, I will discuss the gluten-related medical syndromes my patient presented with, including those related to the brain, eye, respiratory tract, gut, joints and urogenital system.

I should emphasise at this stage that not everyone is intolerant to gluten.  Statistics show that only 1% of the population have coeliac disease (CD), but a greater proportion (47%) have non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS.)  The clinical features of CD and NCGS overlap as most patients present with brain fog, gut symptoms, anxiety, depression, fibromyalgia or body aches and pains.  Both conditions respond very well to a gluten-free diet.

The relationship between the gut and brain

The gut and brain are connected via a carriageway known as the vagus nerve.  Inflammation in the gut can echo in the brain to cause mood swings, precipitate anxiety and panic attacks.  Studies confirm that gluten-sensitive people suffer with abnormally high rates of anxiety and depression.  The good news is that many patients with anxiety, depression or bipolar disease feel better by excluding gluten from their diet.

My patient was born with a bicuspid (2 cusps) aortic heart valve, a congenital condition that affects 2% of the population.  (The aortic valve usually has 3 cusps.)  Having a bicuspid valve increases the risk of developing aortic valve stenosis (narrow valve), with or without calcification.

These patients usually stay completely asymptomatic during childhood and the diagnosis of valvular disease usually comes to light in adulthood.  Hence the protocol is to monitor these patients with regular echocardiograms to determine the right time for a valve replacement.

As the valve becomes narrow, the heart has to pump harder to push blood through.  This not only results in compromised blood circulation, but can also cause heart failure.

Also, the congenital valve is prone to infection, a serious condition known as infective endocarditis, treated with prolonged courses of antibiotics.  The valve can also become leaky (aortic regurgitation) or the patient develop abnormal heart rhythm, such as atrial fibrillation.

EKG, pulse oximetry, systemic blood pressure and pulmonary blood pressure displayed on patient’s monitor.

But what has gluten got to do with congenital valve disease?

Gluten causes systemic inflammation that can result in the scarring and narrowing of the heart valve.  High levels of inflammatory cytokines also attract calcification, resulting in further narrowing of the valve opening and aortic valve stenosis.

Simply put, CD and NCGS increase your risk of coronary artery disease!  That is because inflammation is the link between coeliac disease and coronary artery disease.  Coeliac disease causes chronic systemic inflammation that can result in a serious vascular disease.  Research has reported double the risk of heart disease among patients with coeliac disease, compared with those without the condition, the risk being higher in the over 65s.  Nutritional impairment in those with coeliac may also contribute to atherosclerosis (the build-up of plaque.)

Another study showed stiffness and decreased aorta elasticity (a non-traditional cardiovascular risk factors) in patients with CD.  Aortic stenosis (narrowing) may be another cause of angina among patients with coeliac disease.  So, all CD and NCGS patients should be assessed for the risk of heart disease.

Candida overgrowth frequent in patients with CD or NCGS

This is particularly true of women with high levels of oestrogen or those taking contraceptive pills.  This is because candida feeds on oestrogen.  This also explains why candida is not prevalent during pregnancy, which is a state of high progesterone but low oestrogen.

CD and NCGS patients continue to suffer with recurrent yeast infections most of their lives, particularly if they continue with a diet high in sugar and refined carbohydrates.  Alcohol, particularly wine, also promotes candida growth.

People with chronic yeast infections are also known to suffer with recurrent migraine and headaches.  Studies show that 85% of people with migraines clear (or significantly reduce) their headaches with candida treatment.

You might be interested in the symptoms my patient mentioned in relation to her recurrent yeast sinusitis, in particular having thick saliva, earache, a sense of ear fullness and sensitivity to loud sound.

Having a thick saliva may be a symptom of dehydration, but could also be related to candida infection if the saliva becomes mucoid, or you develop unusual taste sensations or white patches in the mouth.  I have met patients complaining of earache, blocked ears and a sense of fullness due to the extension of the infection into their Eustachian tubes.

Our patient also presented with joint pain and kidney stones, which can both be explained by high levels of oxalate.  Oxalates are organic acids, and high levels can be related to diet, but are more common in chronic yeast infections and mitochondria dysfunction.  People with high levels can present with multiple symptoms, such as fatigue, joint pain and kidney stones – as we have seen in our patient.  This can also cause sleep disturbance and a fibromyalgia-like type of pain.

Where diet is the cause, it’s leafy greens such as spinach and kale are rich in oxalates. Glyphosate (Roundup, a herbicide), is to blame for accumulation of oxalates in your body.  This again highlights the importance of eating healthy organic food.

What is so bad about gluten?

I advise every patient complaining of joint pain to eliminate gluten from their diet.  I constantly get positive feedback from these patients: in almost 100% of cases, they say their joints got better.  This is a wonderful intervention: it does not cost the patient a penny and is almost 100% effective.  In fact, a friend of mine, Dr Peter Osbourne, has written a book on the subject – “No Grain, No Pain”!

Gluten contains gliadin, a protein that many people cannot digest and that therefore damages the tight junctions that keep the intestine lining cells tightly glued together.  This damage results in what is known as leaky bowel.  The consequent leakage of not fully digested molecules irritates the immune system, causing it to attack various body organs resulting in autoimmunity.

It is well documented that patients with autoimmune arthritis, such as rheumatoid arthritis or psoriatic arthritis, are likely to be at high risk of CD or NCGS.  Also, patients presenting with arthropathy (painful normal joints) are likely to be sensitive to gluten.  Most patients suffering with joint pain are likely to get better on a gluten-free diet.

It would be sensible to apply coeliac disease screening to every patient presenting with joint pain.

Coeliac disease and the eye

CD can cause vision problems due to the inflammation of the eye (uveitis), or the muscles that move the eye (myositis), or the lacrimal gland (tear glands) resulting in dry eye.  Therefore, CD can cause loss of vision, colour blindness, night blindness, double vision and dry eye.

CD causes inflammation of the gut wall, resulting in nutrients essential for eye function failing to be absorbed.  These include vitamin A, the lack of which results in swelling at the back of the eye (retinopathy.)  Deficiency of vitamin A is well known to cause night blindness.  CD can also interfere with the absorption of vitamin D and calcium through the inflamed gut wall.  Hypocalcaemia (low calcium levels) is known to result in cataract development.

Malabsorption of vitamins A and E may result in pigmentary retinal degeneration, not unlike retinitis pigmentosa.  Studies have also documented that CD could cause vision loss due to the calcification of the occipital lobe, the part of the brain responsible for vision processing.

If you have any of these symptoms, please refrain from taking any gluten-containing food, particularly grains such as wheat, rye, oats and barley, until you have been fully tested.  Please continue on a gluten-free diet if you do test positive.  In this way, you can quite simply prevent many conditions, including heart disease, arthritis, vision impairment, gut dysfunction and the risk of chronic infection.

Is a gluten-free diet good for you?

The gluten-free food industry is growing fast, but are those products actually good for our health?  It is good that you exclude gluten from your diet, but it is not good to do so with highly processed and refined food.  Recent studies confirm that what is generally known as a “gluten-free diet” is the cause of obesity and metabolic syndrome epidemic.

Therefore, my friends, the real solution for gluten sensitivity is to go back once again to mother nature – to a diet of healthy carbohydrate options – beans, quinoa and sweet potatoes.  And if you really cannot live without rice, then by all means eat wild rice, which is absolutely gluten-free.

If you have any symptoms similar to those described above – or if you have tried a gluten-free diet – I would be fascinated to hear about your experiences.  Please share, because in sharing, you are caring for others – and you may even help in their repairing!  Thank you.