Gluten sensitivity is currently estimated to affect as many as 18 million Americans. Reactions to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, are becoming increasingly common. Gluten sensitivity can range in severity from mild discomfort, such as gas and bloating, to celiac disease, a serious autoimmune condition that can, if undiagnosed, result in a 4-fold increase in death. Genetics alone cannot explain the rapid rise in gluten-related disorders, and experts believe that there must be an environmental trigger. There continues to be much debate about what that environmental trigger may be.
Some assert that a higher gluten content of modern wheat is to blame for the rising prevalence of gluten-related disorders. But a 2013 review of data commissioned by the United States Department of Agriculture found no evidence to support this. Others blame increased consumption of wheat overall, age of wheat introduction, cesarean birth, breastfeeding duration, or alterations in intestinal microflora. All of these do offer some explanation, but they cannot completely account for the drastic increase in gluten sensitivities that we have seen in recent years.
Another possible environmental trigger may be the introduction of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) to the American food supply, which occurred in the mid-1990s. GMOs are created by a laboratory process that transfers genetic material into the DNA of an organism There are nine genetically modified (GM) food crops currently on the market: soy, corn, cotton (oil), canola (oil), sugar from sugar beets, zucchini, yellow squash, Hawaiian papaya, and alfalfa. Notice that wheat is not one of these. Although wheat has been hybridized through natural breeding techniques over the years, it is not in fact a GMO.
Most GM crops are engineered to tolerate a weed killer called Roundup®, whose active ingredient is glyphosate. These crops, known as Roundup-Ready crops, accumulate high levels of glyphosate that remain in the food. Corn and cotton varieties are also engineered to produce an insecticide called Bt-toxin. The Bt-toxin is produced in every cell of genetically engineered corn and ends up in corn chips, corn tortillas, and other ingredients derived from corn. A recent analysis of research suggests that Bt-toxin, glyphosate, and other components of GMOs, are linked to five conditions that may either initiate or exacerbate gluten-related disorders:
- Intestinal permeability
- Imbalanced gut bacteria
- Immune activation and allergies
- Impaired digestion
- Damage to the intestinal wall
Gluten-related disorders are commonly accompanied by and possibly triggered by intestinal permeability, which is commonly referred to as “leaky gut.” Leaky gut occurs when gaps form between intestinal cells and large particles from the digestive tract enter the bloodstream, potentially triggering immune or allergic reactions. The Bt-toxin produced by genetically modified corn kills insects by punching holes in their digestive tracts, and a 2012 study confirmed that it punctures holes in human cells as well. Bt-toxin is present in every kernel of Bt corn, survives human digestion, and has been detected in the blood of 93% of pregnant women tested and 80% of their unborn fetuses. This “hole-punching toxin” may be a critical piece of the puzzle in understanding gluten-related disorders.
Imbalanced gut bacteria
Gluten-sensitive individuals, and especially those with celiac disease, also commonly have an imbalance in their gut flora.The reason that cesarean section increases risk and breastfeeding decreases risk for gluten sensitivity is likely due to their respective effects on microbial balance in the infant’s gut. Glyphosate used on GM crops is not only an herbicide, but also a potent antibiotic. Even with minimal exposure, glyphosate can significantly reduce the population of beneficial gut bacteria and promote the overgrowth of harmful strains. An overgrowth of harmful bacteria can promote inflammation, leaky gut, and immune reactions, all of which are linked to gluten-related disorders.