Genes-R-Us — Love of the loaf: A glutton for gluten

Genes-R-Us — Love of the loaf: A glutton for gluten

Posted: Wednesday, February 1, 2012 5:00 pm

My family loves bread, cakes, cookies, pies — basically anything I can make with wheat flour. In order to marry into our family, one has to pass the “homemade-cinnamon-roll” test — the true test of familial compatibility. Oh, how we love our gluten.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and spelt. It is added to many processed foods, too. It is a great source of protein and helps donuts soak up coffee and biscuits soak up gravy. 
The “love of the loaf” seems to have come from my French father’s side, as my Irish mother could care less about this delicious staple of life. In my childhood-past, my diet of choice was bread and milk.  
Gluten has been much maligned by health enthusiasts. Wheat or gluten allergy is often erroneously confused with Celiac disease (CD).  Although both involve the immune system, gluten allergies and CD are unrelated and trigger very different biological pathways (reactions in the body). Untreated wheat allergies do not develop into CD.
One percent of the U.S. population is estimated to have CD. Wheat allergies are much more common, impacting about 15 percent of the population. Some children even appear to outgrow wheat allergies. 
CD is a life-long autoimmune disease that, if untreated, can severely compromise the small intestine’s function. In all autoimmune diseases, one’s own bodily tissues are attacked by their own immune system. 
In some people, CD has no symptoms whatsoever. Alternatively, it can cause a whole host of complaints, including all the usual unpleasant gastrointestinal maladies, all-over blistery body rashes, joint and bone pain, muscle spasms, anemia, fatigue, trouble breathing, mental issues, weight gain or loss, mouth sores and headaches. Each person can present with a different subset of symptoms (including no symptoms).
In all but about 5 percent of cases, simply removing gluten from the diet is sufficient for complete remission of symptoms in three months or less, although intestinal healing may take a year or more. 
Many people are never diagnosed with the condition, or the diagnosis may come only very late in life and often serendipitously when looking into osteoporosis or neurological conditions. 
As with most autoimmune diseases, genetics absolutely plays a role. This is where the story gets personal. Last week one of my daughters was tested for CD. She was asked to omit gluten from her diet until her lab results came back. 
After speaking with my daughter, I reviewed my own direct-to-consumer (DTC) genetic testing results for CD risk factors and those for my first-degree relatives who have been tested. That includes my son, my birth father and my birth mother. 
My son’s risk factor for CD is 24 times that of the average person. That is a huge risk. My own results and those of my mother for CD are a little more than 3.5 times the average person. My father has essentially no risk. Why?
The answer lies in an immune system protein that we all have called HLA-DQ. There are many, many versions of this DQ protein. Two versions, DQ2.5 and DQ8, seem more likely to get “confused” about who the foreign invaders really are in the small intestine.
Some 99.8 percent of those diagnosed with CD carry the more common DQ2.5 or the less common DQ8. We get one version of this DQ protein from mom and one from dad at conception. 
Although about one-third of us carry the risky DQ2.5 or DQ8, only 1 percent develops CD. Like many autoimmune diseases, the disease strikes at least twice as many women as men. 
There are a growing number of SNPs (single point DNA variations) that are associated with the development of this disease. Currently, undiscovered environmental factor may explain why only a minority of individuals develop the disease.
In my son’s case, he got the double-whammy — his father and I both gave him DQ2.5. These individuals are at the highest risk for CD. I got DQ2.5 from my Irish mother and my French father conferred no additional risk, as he does not have DQ2.5 or DQ8. 
Testing for CD is simple and inexpensive. Accurate test results require consuming the gluten equivalent of at least one piece of bread a day for at least one month prior. Testing can be easily accomplished through your doctor or even home test kits. 
Editor’s note: Nancy Miller Latimer has worked in scientific research and development for 27 years. Published in The Messenger 2.1.12

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