We’re all on a health journey, whether we like it or not. Some of us have navigational tools and an itinerary in place. Others are out for a cruise, seeing where the road leads. When fellow travelers converse and dine together, food is often a topic. I’m not a gambler, but I bet many of you have heard this comment, “Why, all of a sudden, are so many people going gluten free? Our parents and grandparents ate wheat their entire lives and never had a problem.”

I never quite knew how to respond to this. That gluten could be inflammatory I knew. I am aware that our consumption is greater than that of our ancestors. Also in this country, as opposed to Europe, we process grains in a way that is more likely to be inflammatory. But, these points never seemed quite adequate in my friendly debates. Why is this family of proteins now considered off limits for so many? Tom O’Bryan, a functional medicine practitioner, helped me respond.


What are people dying from? The majority are dying from some sort of degenerative disease–cardiovascular disease, diabetes, Alzheimer’s, pulmonary disease, cancer. What drives degenerative disease? Inflammation. What does this have to do with a slice of gluten?


According to Tom O’Bryan, every individual sustains damage to their intestinal lining every time wheat is consumed. We eat toast for breakfast — tear and repair. We eat a sandwich for lunch — tear and repair. Pasta for dinner — tear and repair. After years, the day may finally arrive when we aren’t able to repair. The immune system then goes on alert when it sees large molecules of food leaking into the bloodstream via one of these tears. In its attack, it may mistakenly hit our own tissue. We may not see symptoms for years down the road, but the immune response cascade has begun. With inflammation comes tissue or organ damage. With enough damage, dysfunction results. Full-blown disease follows. Our parents and grandparents may not have been diagnosed with celiac disease, but a degenerative disease? Pretty likely.


Maybe you have already eliminated gluten. But have you ever heard this comment? Or maybe it’s a conversation you’ve had with yourself:

“It’s a special occasion. One piece of cake is not going to kill you.”

Tom O’Bryan helped me with this one as well. The standard mortality ratio in those with celiac disease is 2:1. In those celiacs who consume gluten once per month, the ratio increases to 6:1. They are six times more likely to die early just by consuming gluten once a month. If an individual’s immune system has made antibodies to gluten, a single exposure can turn the inflammation cascade back on. Elevated antibodies may last anywhere from 2-6 months from a single exposure. As Tom says, “You can’t be a little pregnant, and you can’t have a little gluten.”

I don’t have celiac disease, but I recently found out that I have the gene that predisposes one to it. I have one autoimmune disease already. No more, thank you very much. My teenage daughter has one as well. From time to time, someone will offer her some fast food or prepare a meal that has “a little gluten.” It’s not always easy to convince someone that gluten can really be a key contributor to disease.

As you navigate your health journey, I hope that understanding the role that gluten can play in disease is helpful.

Health Coach Kasi Shogren

EPIC Functional Medicine Center

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