As someone who has struggled with chronic health problems and has worked hard to overcome them, I’ve tried everything to help improve my symptoms. About five years ago, after receiving some advice from a good friend with celiac disease, I first tried cutting out all wheat products and saw a dramatic difference in my health. In particular, my asthma cleared up for the first time in my life. My lungs opened up and I knew what it felt like to breathe normally.
Since then, I’ve eliminated all gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley and rye. If I accidentally get exposed to gluten-containing products, I experience a wide range of adverse symptoms, including asthma. If I avoid it, these symptoms go away. It’s like night and day. So I know for a fact that wheat make me sick.
But why is it making me sick? It is simply the "gluten" within wheat products that is making me sick? Or is it something else within them as well?
I’ve always assumed it was just gluten, but I did some extensive research recently and what I found surprised me.
Gluten may not be the only problem after all.
Before we jump into it, I want to clarify something. There is one well-defined disease called celiac disease, and then another more controversial condition called gluten sensitivity.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in genetically predisposed people. It is a serious condition triggered by the consumption of gluten. Gluten sensitivity (often termed non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS) is not as easily identified, and its existence is debated. Some experts even believe that gluten sensitivity isn’t a real condition. Yet I found two randomized controlled trials that support gluten sensitivity as a real condition, showing that people with irritable bowel syndrome but not celiac disease experience improvements on a gluten-free diet (3, 4).
Celiac disease affects about 0.7-1% of people (1), and gluten sensitivity ranges from 0.5-13% depending on the study (2).
Gluten sensitivity is claimed to be characterized by various adverse symptoms. These include digestive discomfort, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, headache, anxiety, depression, skin rashes, sore joints and weight loss. When I eat gluten-containing products, I experience a number of these symptoms.
Possible Explanation for the Rise in Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance
It’s clear that celiac disease and gluten sensitivity has become much more prevalent over the past 5 to 10 years. Gluten-free food choices are everywhere. So why such a sudden increase? Why didn’t our ancestors suffer from the same conditions?
Over the past 15 years, there has also been a dramatic increase in the use of the broad-spectrum herbicide Roundup by farmers. It has become a common harvest protocol to spray wheat fields with Roundup, allowing for an earlier, easier and bigger harvest (5). This saves money and increases profits.
Keith Lewis, who has been a wheat farmer for over 50 years, says:
“One wheat production practice that is very common is applying the herbicide Roundup just prior to harvest. Consumers eating products made from wheat flour are undoubtedly consuming minute amounts of Roundup. This farming practice greatly concerns me and it should further concern consumers of wheat products.”
So how is this related to celiac disease and gluten sensitivity?
The use of glyphosate – the active chemical ingredient in Roundup – rises directly in step with the alarming increase in a number of diseases, including celiac disease.
The chart below demonstrates the clear correlation between skyrocketing application of glyphosate to wheat crops since 1990, and the incidence of celiac disease during the same period (6). But remember, correlation does not necessarily mean causation:
Glyphosate and the Digestive System
Most of the non-organic wheat supply is now contaminated with glyphosate from Roundup. While the herbicide industry maintains that glyphosate is minimally toxic to humans, research published in the Journal Entropy strongly argues otherwise, shedding light on exactly how glyphosate disrupts mammalian physiology.
The research suggests that glyphosate can kill the beneficial bacteria in our gastrointestinal system. This beneficial bacteria - more commonly known as probiotics - plays a key role in digestive health by preventing the permeability of the gastrointestinal tract, synthesizing nutrients, and providing the foundation for robust immunity. By destroying these healthy bacteria, glyphosate can contribute to numerous modern diseases that result from digestive dysfunction, including depression, celiac disease and gluten sensitivity (7).
In other words, glyphosate reduces the bacteria in our bodies that help us digest food. When the probiotics in our gut are get destroyed by glyphosate, genetically-susceptible individuals have a much more difficult time breaking down wheat and absorbing vitamins and minerals, which results in chronic disease (6).
So overall, genetics are not the sole cause of the increase in these diseases. Our environment is simply causing further gene expression of celiac disease and gluten intolerance.
What’s being done about this?
In Sri Lanka and El Salvador, agricultural workers who had been spraying their fields with glyphosate started dying at young ages from kidney failure. As result, both countries banned the use of glyphosate on their farms (8, 9). Not surprisingly, people with celiac disease are also at a higher risk of kidney failure (10).
In July, the UK-based Soil Association also called for an immediate ban on the use of glyphosate for wheat ripening and desiccation purposes. The non-profit organization reports that glyphosate residues are widely found in nonorganic wheat samples and the use of the herbicide on wheat crops has increased 400% in the past two decades (11).
“It’s impossible for people to avoid it, unless they are eating organic,” said Peter Melchett, policy director of the Soil Association. “This is why the Soil Association is calling for the immediate ending of the use of glyphosate sprays on wheat destined for use in bread.”
Even if you think you have no trouble digesting wheat, it is still very wise to avoid conventional wheat as much as possible in your diet. The cancer-research arm of the World Health Organization has also announced that glyphosate is carcinogenic to humans (12).
Some European countries have already banned glyphosate. People with allergic or digestive issues in the United States sometimes experience zero symptoms when they eat pasta in Italy, as glyphosate is banned there.
Despite all of this, nothing has changed in the United States and Canada.
What Can We Do?
Find a trusted farmer in your area or buy certified organic food. Organic standards do not permit glyphosate. Do not confuse this with labels that say "natural" or “all-natural,” as these terms aren’t regulated.
You should also avoid commercially available wheat, and corn and soy, as they also contain glyphosate. It's important to note that you can’t wash glyphosate off of your food, as it’s incorporated into the cells of each plant.
The problem is that glyphosate bio-accumulates throughout your body, and it can be difficult to get out. It's much harder to reverse the damage once it's done, so avoid glyphosate to begin with – especially in your child's diet. Sadly, a lot of parents feed their children corn and soy-based infant formulas, which may explain the rise in obesity and cancer in very young children.
But it’s not just plants such as wheat, corn and soy. Factory-farmed animals are typically raised on a grain-based diet, and glyphosate bio-accumulates in their tissues as well. So find organic grass-fed beef and pastured chicken through a local farmer.
At this point, we need to move quickly and take charge of our health on an individual level by putting in the effort to cook and eat healthy whole foods. Otherwise, we're going to end up with a country that's so sick that we’ll be spending all of our time and money taking care of sick people.
One of the main reasons I’m starting to blog about this type of information is because mainstream media does not give it the widespread coverage that it deserves. As a journalist, I feel compelled to write about it and inform people.
Let me know what you think in the comments below.
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Medically reviewed by Dr. Robert Blake Gibb, MD