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Medical Superstitions of the Twenty-First Century
This article appeared in the Autumn 2008 edition of Celiac.com's Scott-Free Newsletter.
Celiac.com 01/14/2009 - Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease have long been seen as a gut disease. Unfortunately, this has resulted in a variety of erroneous medical perceptions, leading to limited and distorted perspectives on the impact of gluten on human health. After a battle of more than 50 years, celiac disease is now widely recognized both in and out of the medical profession, as common and treatable only with a gluten-free diet. (This is largely thanks to the proactive efforts of a few researchers and many support group members over the last two or three decades.) Recognition of the importance of a gluten-free diet in dermatitis herpetiformis has still not reached the same level. Some dermatologists continue to prescribe Dapsone, often deriding or even failing to apprise their patients of the gluten-free diet as an alternative therapy. This is especially important for reducing the risks of certain cancers, yet many stubbornly refuse to even suggest this therapeutic alternative. Neurologists, psychiatrists, and psychologists, despite compelling evidence of the nefarious impact of gluten in a wide range of neurological and psychiatric diseases, typically continue to ignore these data in favor of pharmacological interventions. (Unlike pharmaceutical manufacturers, gluten-free food suppliers do not wine and dine physicians.) These chemical treatments involve a cacophony of attendant side effects and lengthy periods of experimentation to find the “correct” dosage that ultimately fails to fully relieve the patients’ symptoms or arrest the progression of the disease, while usually reducing patients to a more manageable, though limited state of consciousness. From epilepsy to cerebellar ataxia, to peripheral neuropathy, to schizophrenia, to bi-polar disorder, to attention deficit disorders, to learning disabilities, to depressive illness, the treatment of choice is pharmacological rather than dietary.
Similarly, we have large, vocal, and politically active groups that loudly decry the consumption of a variety of foods, from meat, to fish, to various plant families, with little or no evidence to support such interdictions. Others tout one or more food additives or consumption practices as great and wonderful substances/practices that will cure all ailments and guarantee a long and productive life. These strange recommendations range from consumption of watermelon seed extract, to acai berries, a variety of fasting procedures prescribing one or two foods during the “fasting” period, food combining, juicing, egg white omelets, wheat grass, low fat diets and even colon cleanses that involve putting coffee up your rectum. Again, there is little solid evidence to support these practices yet they appear to develop quite a following.
I’m not suggesting that most mainstream medical professionals support these cleansing and dietary fads. However, much of the medical profession’s resistance to their own professional literature in which solid evidence indicts gluten as a cause of disease, while embracing questionable pharmaceutical solutions, is closely akin to the superstitious practices and outrageous claims that litter the Internet and the popular media. The evidence is clear and compelling. Neurological, psychiatric, and autoimmune diseases are often mitigated by gluten restriction. Yet we continue to hear about pharmacological interventions that offer less relief and little long-term hope of remission.
The widely published pediatric allergist and gastroenterologist, Rodney Ford, has argued a compelling case for his theory that gluten induced neurological damage is where the gluten syndrome and celiac disease begin, in his recent book titled “Full of It”. It is a theory that makes sense of otherwise puzzling individual variations in the course of gluten-induced disease. It also explains the high frequency of gluten antibodies found by M. Hadjivassiliou and his group, in patients with neurological diseases of unknown origin (57%) while only a quarter of that percentage had celiac disease.
Dohan and Grassberger, followed by Singh and Kay, clearly established a therapeutic role for a gluten-free, dairy-free diet in schizophrenia. Subsequent publication of several deeply flawed, poorly designed, and sloppily conducted studies have allowed for the common rationalization required for ignoring the solid, earlier findings mentioned above. This denial continues despite the recent publication, by Anthony De Santis and his group, of SPECT findings in a schizophrenic patient whose blood flow patterns in the brain, and behavior returned to “normal” following institution of a gluten-free diet.
Similar work with autistic subjects, conducted by Kalle Reichelt, Paul Shattock, and a host of others, has shown that gluten-free, dairy-free diets offer real promise for symptom reduction in this very challenging sub-population. Similarly, some amazing reversals of learning disabilities, through gluten-free diets, have been reported at Nunnykirk School in the United Kingdom. Further, about two thirds of untreated celiac children show signs and symptoms of attention deficit disorders. These children have long been reported to normalize within one year of beginning a gluten free diet (see: http://members.shaw.ca/oldsite/My_Master%27s_thesis.htm).
Despite all of this contrary evidence, most allopathic practitioners continue to insist that gluten is a healthful food and they continue to recommend its daily consumption. They may be willing to concede gluten’s role in celiac disease and even in dermatitis herpetiformis, but they continue to ignore all of the other reported findings in association with the broad spectrum of diseases in which gluten sensitivity or celiac disease is grossly overrepresented. They continue to ignore or deny the potential value of a gluten free diet in the face of compelling evidence. Most of these same medical practitioners and investigators would be deeply offended by my suggestion that they are little different from those advocating coffee enemas or juicing. Yet their beliefs are not based on the evidence presented in their professional literature. In my dictionary, acting on irrational beliefs is called ‘superstition’. It is the superstitious resistance to solid evidence that is most frustrating when dealing with ignorance – whether the impetus is to push coffee enemas into your rectum or ingest yet another chemical compound from a prosperous pharmaceutical manufacturer despite evidence that a gluten-free diet might produce results that are more desirable to the patient.
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Dr. Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.
As co-author of "Dangerous Grains" and "Cereal Killers", the study of the impact of gluten continues to be a driving passion in my life. I am fascinated by the way that gluten induces illness and impedes learning while it alters mood, behavior, and a host of other facets of our existence. Sure, the impact of gluten on health is an important issue, but that is only the most obvious area of impact. Mood disturbances, learning disabilities, and the loss of quality of life due to psychiatric and neurological illness are even more tragic than the plethora of physical ailments that are caused or worsened by gluten. The further I go down this rabbit hole, the more I realize that grains are a good food for ruminants - not people. I am a retired school teacher. Over the last decade, I have done some college and university level teaching, but the bulk of my teaching career was spent working with high school students. My Web page is: www.DangerousGrains.comView all articles by Dr. Ron Hoggan, Ed.D.
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