March 21st, 2011
The Wall Street Journal
By: Melinda Beck
Lisa Rayburn felt dizzy, bloated and exhausted. Wynn Avocette suffered migraines and body aches. Stephanie Meade’s 4-year-old daughter had constipation and threw temper tantrums.
All three tested negative for celiac disease, a severe intolerance to gluten, a protein found in wheat and other grains. But after their doctors ruled out other causes, all three adults did their own research and cut gluten—and saw the symptoms subside.
A new study in the journal BMC Medicine may shed some light on why. It shows gluten can set off a distinct reaction in the intestines and the immune system, even in people who don’t have celiac disease.
“For the first time, we have scientific evidence that indeed, gluten sensitivity not only exists, but is very different from celiac disease,” says lead author Alessio Fasano, medical director of the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research.
The news will be welcome to people who have suspected a broad range of ailments may be linked to their gluten intake, but have failed to find doctors who agree.
“Patients have been told if it wasn’t celiac disease, it wasn’t anything. It was all in their heads,” says Cynthia Kupper, executive director of the nonprofit Gluten Intolerance Group of North America.
The growing market for gluten-free foods, with sales estimated at $2.6 billion last year, has made it even harder to distinguish a medical insight from a fad.
Although much remains unknown, it is clear that gluten—a staple of human diets for 10,000 years—triggers an immune response like an enemy invader in some modern humans.
The most basic negative response is an allergic reaction to wheat that quickly brings on hives, congestion, nausea or potentially fatal anaphylaxis. Less than 1% of children have the allergy and most outgrow it by age five. A small number of adults have similar symptoms if they exercise shortly after eating wheat.
At the other extreme is celiac disease, which causes the immune system to mistakenly attack the body’s own tissue. Antibodies triggered by gluten flatten the villi, the tiny fingers in the intestines needed to soak up nutrients from food. The initial symptoms are cramping, bloating and diarrhea, similar to irritable bowel syndrome, or IBS, but celiac disease can lead to malnutrition, osteoporosis and other more serious health problems that can result in early death. It can be diagnosed with a blood test, but an intestinal biopsy is needed to be sure.
The incidence of celiac disease is rising sharply—and not just due to greater awareness. Tests comparing old blood samples to recent ones show the rate has increased four-fold in the last 50 years, to at least 1 in 133 Americans. It’s also being diagnosed in people as old as 70 who have eaten gluten safely all their lives.
“People aren’t born with this. Something triggers it and with this dramatic rise in all ages, it must be something pervasive in the environment,” says Joseph A. Murray, a gastroenterologist at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. One possible culprit: agricultural changes to wheat that have boosted its protein content.
Gluten sensitivity, also known as gluten intolerance, is much more vague.
Some experts think as many as 1 in 20 Americans may have some form of it, but there is no test or defined set of symptoms. The most common are IBS-like stomach problems, headaches, fatigue, numbness and depression, but more than 100 symptoms have been loosely linked to gluten intake, which is why it has been so difficult to study. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center says that research into gluten sensitivity today is roughly where celiac disease was 30 years ago.
In the new study, researchers compared blood samples and intestinal biopsies from 42 subjects with confirmed celiac disease, 26 with suspected gluten sensitivity and 39 healthy controls. Those with gluten sensitivity didn’t have the flattened villi, or the “leaky” intestinal walls seen in the subjects with celiac disease.
Their immune reactions were different, too. In the gluten-sensitive group, the response came from innate immunity, a primitive system with which the body sets up barriers to repel invaders. The subjects with celiac disease rallied adaptive immunity, a more sophisticated system that develops specific cells to fight foreign bodies.
The findings still need to be replicated. How a reaction to gluten could cause such a wide range of symptoms also remains unproven. Dr. Fasano and other experts speculate that once immune cells are mistakenly primed to attack gluten, they can migrate and spread inflammation, even to the brain.
Indeed, Marios Hadjivassiliou, a neurologist in Sheffield, England, says he found deposits of antibodies to gluten in autopsies and brain scans of some patients with ataxia, a condition of impaired balance.
Could such findings help explain why some parents of autistic children say their symptoms have improved—sometimes dramatically—when gluten was eliminated from their diets? To date, no scientific studies have emerged to back up such reports.
Dr. Fasano hopes to eventually discover a biomarker specifically for gluten sensitivity. In the meantime, he and other experts recommend that anyone who thinks they have it be tested for celiac disease first.
For now, a gluten-free diet is the only treatment recommended for gluten sensitivity, though some may be able to tolerate small amounts, says Ms. Kupper.
“There’s a lot more that needs to be done for people with gluten sensitivity,” she says. “But at least we now recognize that it’s real and that these people aren’t crazy.”
December 2nd, 2010
By: David Gutierrez
Extracts from broccoli and plantain may help boost the stomach’s defenses against infection, according to a study conducted by researchers from the University of Liverpool in collaboration with Scottish and Swedish researchers, and published in the journal Gut.
The researchers hope that their findings will prove helpful to people suffering from a form of inflammatory bowel disease known as Crohn’s disease.
“With Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, [a] genetic predisposition teams up with failed tolerance, and you’re left with chronic recurrent bowel inflammation,” write James Dowd and Diane Stafford in their book The Vitamin D Cure.
“Your immune system can’t handle the bacteria in your intestines, so the bowel lining becomes a battleground where the immune system is constantly attacking bacteria that attach to it,” they write. “It’s like you have an infected rash inside your gut.”
Researchers examined the effect of fibers from broccoli and plantain on the M-cells that line the human gut. The cells were obtained both from laboratory cultures and from surgical tissue samples. They found that while the plant fibers helped keep harmful bacteria moving through the bowel, a common stabilizer found in processed foods caused them to stay in the gut longer, increasing the risk of infection.
Crohn’s disease is particularly common in countries where people eat lots of processed foods and low amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables.
“We have known for some time the general health benefits of eating plantain and broccoli, which are both high in vitamins and minerals, but until now we have not understood how they can boost the body’s natural defenses against infection common in Crohn’s patients,” researcher Barry Campbell said. “Our work suggests that it might be important for patients with this condition to eat healthily and limit their intake of processed foods.”
August 20th, 2010
By: Richard Alleyne
Known as Huang Qin Tang, the mix of plant extracts, roots and fruit has been used for hundreds of years to treat stomach upsets and nausea.
But now researchers have found that it not only does the same for patients on chemotherapy, it also increases the effectiveness of the treatment.
The strong drugs used in chemotherapy cause a number of toxic side effects because it kills healthy cells as well as cancerous ones.
This is particularly true in the digestive tract or intestines.
The team from Yale University found that in mice the use of the Huang Qin Tang mixture helped protect the intestine lining and helped it recover more quickly.
It also reduced inflammation and boosted the effectiveness of the chemotherapy to kill tumours.
The formula used in the experiment consists of four herbs – extract of peonies, a pretty purple flower called skullcap, together with liquorice and fruit from a buckthorn tree.
The researchers treated mice with colon and rectal cancer with chemotherapy, which shrank tumours but also caused massive destruction in the intestinal lining of the animals.
After a few days of treatment with PHY906, the medicine restored the damaged intestinal linings in the mice.
The patients lost less weight and saw more cancer cells killed.
“Chemotherapy causes great distress for millions of patients, but PHY-906 has multiple biologically active compounds which can act on multiple sources of discomfort,” said Professor Yung-Chi Cheng, lead author of the study published in Science Translational Medicine.
“This combination of chemotherapy and herbs represents a marriage of Western and Eastern approaches to the treatment of cancer.
“We will continue to refine these processes to better study and understand the sophisticated nature of herbal medicines. Revisiting history may lead us to discovering future medicines.”
April 21, 2010
By Nick Britten
Malcolm Drake, 23, died from Crohn’s Disease and spent his final hours unable to move or eat. He had sought help six times in the days before he died, but GPs and two Accident and Emergency doctors had missed his condition.
He was even refused an MRI scan three days before he died that would have shown up the condition, the hearing was told.
Mr Drake’s former fiancée, Sophie Lindop, 25, told the inquest yesterday that she found him dead on their sofa on Christmas Day 2007.
In a statement read to the inquest, at Hanley Town Hall, Stoke-on-Trent, Miss Lindop said: “By December 18 he was getting worse each day and was deteriorating in front of us.
“I couldn’t believe they were still doing nothing for Malcolm. It was very frustrating but I felt powerless when everyone said it was just a strain.”
Referring to to Mr Drake’s second visit to A&E on December 22, Miss Lindop added: “I looked at him and he looked seriously ill.
“He looked like an old man and I couldn’t believe the doctor was sending him home when he was so obviously ill.
“As we left I looked back into the cubicle, had a moment of hesitation and thought about taking him back into the cubicle.
“It just didn’t seem right that they were discharging him, but the staff just seemed to want us out of there.”
She added: “The doctor said he didn’t need an MRI scan – that he should go home and exercise.”
Crohn’s disease is an autoimmune disease of the intestines and causes inflammation of the digestive tract, particularly the lower part of the small intestine.
Miss Lindop told the hearing how Mr Drake had urged her to visit her family on Christmas Day as it was their five month-old son Zak’s first Christmas.
She left a phone next to Mr Drake on the sofa and called him every 20 minutes to check on him, but dashed back to their home when he stopped answering the phone, only to discover his body on the sofa with the television and Christmas tree lights still on.
Mr Drake had first complained of abdominal pain in mid-November before the first of six visits to medics and physiotherapists in the 15 days before he died, during which time his right leg had swollen considerably and he was in such pain he couldn’t eat.
He saw a GP on December 10th, went to A&E on the 13th, another GP on the 17th and finally A&E again on the 22nd. In between, he had two bouts of physiotherapy.
The hearing was told that Dr Richard Aw, a junior doctor who saw him at the University Hospital of North Staffordshire’s Accident and Emergency department on December 22nd, did not refer to his previous recent visits which were on his medical records, nor make a written record of them when Mr Drake explained who he had seen.
Dr Aw had been employed as a GP locum and had only one year’s experience.
He diagnosed Mr Drake as suffering from a groin strain “consistent with previous findings” and sent him home with a dose of painkillers.
Dr Aw also claimed that despite ambulance staff apparently noting a ‘palpable mass’ in Mr Drake’s right thigh on the way to A&E, he did not find any lump in the leg himself.
It emerged that Dr Aw had advised him against having an MRI. Giving evidence, he admitted that an MRI would have shown up the Crohn’s disease.
Simon Fox, representing Miss Lindop and Mr Drake’s family, told Dr Aw: “Had Mr Drake had the scan, it would’ve led to the diagnosis – Mr Drake had it exactly right didn’t he?”
Dr Aw replied: “Yes.”
The hearing continues.
December 15, 2009
A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy Sciences Journal says that Bisphenol A, a chemical used in plastic containers and drink cans, can negatively affect the intestines’ functioning, Agence France-Presse reported.
French researchers looked at the digestive tract of rats and saw that the rodents reacted badly to low doses of BPA, according to the report.
The study was also conducted on human intestine cells, and researchers discovered that BPA lowered the intestines’ permeability, as well as the immune system’s response to inflammation.
BPA has been linked to many serious health problems, including, but not limited to, breast cancer, obesity and the early onset of puberty.
October 13, 2009
By David Gutierrez
The active ingredient of the popular herbicide Roundup, widely used on lawns and genetically modified (GM) crops worldwide, causes birth defects of the brain, heart and intestines even in minuscule doses, Argentinean researchers have found.
“The observed deformations are consistent and systematic,” said lead researcher Andres Carrasco, director of the Laboratory of Molecular Embryology at the University of Buenos Aires.
Argentina is the world’s third largest exporter of soy, planting nearly 17 million hectares (42 million acres), or half of the country’s cropland. Much of this soy has been genetically modified by the Monsanto Corporation to be resistant to the company’s trademark herbicide, Roundup. As a consequence, massive quantities of Roundup are sprayed over soy fields across the country. In many cases, the herbicide is sprayed from the air and may drift over nearby communities or enter their water supplies.
Approximately 200 million liters (53 million gallons) of Roundup are used in Argentina each year.
The new study, conducted by the National Council for Scientific and Technical Research (CONICET), was ordered by the Argentinean Health Ministry in response to complaints filed before federal courts over the health effects of widespread herbicide spraying. For the past five years, a wide coalition of environmental and rights groups have pointed to significantly higher rates of birth defects, cancer, lupus, and diseases of the kidney, skin and respiratory systems in communities located near field of GM soy. Most recently, the nonprofit Rural Reflection Group (GRR) published a paper containing reports of health effects from rural doctors, residents and experts.
The group has called for a ban on the use of Roundup in accordance with the precautionary principle.
In the first phase of the CONICET study, researchers diluted Roundup’s active ingredient, glyphosate, to a strength 1,500 times less than that used on GM soy crops. Other than water, no ingredients were added. The researchers then submerged amphibian embryos into this glyphosate solution, finding that the embryos consistently developed into animals with deformed heads.
In the second phase, researchers injected embryos directly with the diluted glyphosate solution. In addition to head deformity, the researchers observed reduced head size, increased death of skull-forming cells, deformed cartilage and genetic changes to the animals’ central nervous system, on a much larger scale than in the first part of the study.
“One should be able to suppose, with certainty, that the same thing that happens to amphibian embryos can happen to humans,” Carrasco said, noting that the observed results were “completely comparable to what would happen in the development of a human embryo.”
“Pure glyphosate, in doses lower than those used in fumigation, causes defects … (and) could be interfering in some normal embryonic development mechanism having to do with the way in which cells divide and die,” he said. Because the researchers deliberately excluded any of the additives that are also found in Roundup, they concluded that the herbicide’s active ingredient was definitely to blame for the effects.
Because the levels of glyphosate used “were much lower than the levels used in the fumigations,” the risk in real life “is much more serious” than that seen in the lab, Carrasco said.
“The companies say that drinking a glass of glyphosate is healthier than drinking a glass of milk, but the fact is that they’ve used us as guinea pigs,” Carrasco said.
“It is clear that glyphosate is not innocuous and that it does not degrade or break down, but accumulates in cells.”
Carrasco called for immediate government action, pointing to the fate of communities such as Ituzaingo, where approximately 300 cases of pesticide-related cancer have been reported in the last eight years.
“In communities like Ituzaingo it’s already too late,” he said, “but we have to have a preventive system, to demand that the companies give us security frameworks and, above all, to have very strict regulations for fumigation, which nobody is adhering to out of ignorance or greed.”