The Gluten Effect
The Gluten Effect
To Your Health
September, 2009 (Vol. 03, Issue 09)
The Gluten Effect
How Gluten Sensitivity Can Disrupt Your Hormones and Your Life
By Dr. Vikki Petersen
When we talk about the gluten effect, we're basically talking about how
gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, can have far-reaching
negative effects upon your health. If you're suffering from obesity to
fatigue, depression to headaches, arthritis to digestive problems, gluten
sensitivity may very well be at the root of your symptoms. Gluten can also
affect your hormonal health by stressing the adrenal glands, causing
adrenal fatigue and a number of hormone-related health problems.
The Adrenal Glands: Hormone Central
The adrenal glands sit above your kidneys and release hormones into your
bloodstream, and likewise respond to feedback from other hormones and
chemicals in your body. Their main role is repair and anti-aging. When the
adrenal glands become exhausted from chronic stress, they cannot keep up
with all the demands made upon them and catabolism (think "cannibalism")
or a breakdown of systems occurs. This catabolism results in your body's
systems becoming incapable of repairing themselves; as a result, their
function slowly begins to deteriorate. This leads to fatigue, depression,
loss of libido and hormonal imbalance symptoms such as PMS and hot
flashes, to name a few.
Gluten sensitivity puts direct stress on your adrenal glands. This stress
comes from the inflammatory response created in a gluten-sensitive
person's digestive tract. When gluten creates an inflammatory reaction, it
is the balancing efforts of the hormonal pathways that "cool off" the
stress and create an anti-inflammatory response. If this happened only
occasionally, it wouldn't upset the adrenals' ability to function
optimally. But in patients with gluten sensitivity (40 percent of the
population, by current estimates) this inflammation occurs every time they
eat any gluten, which can be several times per day.
So, the adrenals are getting stressed by all the inflammation gluten is
creating in the intestines. When this stress becomes chronic due to an
individual continuing to consume gluten in their diet, many symptoms are
created due to a phenomenon called "adrenal exhaustion."
Adrenal Exhaustion Caused by Gluten
Common Symptoms of Adrenal Exhaustion
Caused by Gluten Sensitivity
Interruptions in sleep
Difficulty waking in morning
Joint and muscle aches
Weight gain resistant to diet or exercise
Low blood sugar
PMS/ menstrual abnormalities
Under normal conditions, the adrenals make a hormone called pregnenolone
(think of it as the "mother hormone"). Pregnenolone is the basic building
block of many of the hormones the adrenal glands make, including the sex
hormones. These hormones - DHEA, estrogen, testosterone and progesterone -
need to be maintained in proper balance to prevent such conditions as PMS,
anxiety and infertility.
When chronically stressed, something has to give; the adrenal glands
cannot keep up with all their duties. In a very interesting process known
as "pregnenolone steal," the adrenal glands literally "steal" pregnenolone
to make the basic hormone the adrenal gland utilizes for energy
production, leaving sex hormone production lacking. This "borrowing from
Peter to pay Paul" phenomenon results in a host of symptoms associated
with hormonal imbalance.
PMS and menopausal symptoms are associated with gluten sensitivity and
adrenal exhaustion in this manner. Recall that the adrenal gland produces
reproductive hormones, and that pregnenolone serves as the building block
for other hormones. Under normal conditions, ample pregnenolone exists for
conversion to those hormones, but when stressed, pregnenolone is diverted
What does this mean? When your body has been under chronic stress, it is
forced to make a decision: It can get you through the day, putting one
foot in front of the other, or it can make adequate amounts of sex
hormones. It can't do both because it's too stressed. When put in this
situation, your body decides the most pro-survival thing to do is to get
you through the day, to the detriment of making sex hormones. This
insufficient production of hormones does not occur evenly across the
board, however; progesterone tends to fall more dramatically than does
estrogen, resulting in a net estrogen dominance.
Symptoms of estrogen dominance include cramping, heavy bleeding, menstrual
irregularity, endometriosis, polycystic ovaries, fibrocystic breasts,
migraines and PMS. Major symptoms of progesterone deficiency beyond the
above is infertility and miscarriage, along with depression and anxiety.
Joint aches and pains can also be created from adrenal exhaustion. In a
normal, healthy body, wear and tear on the joints is offset by natural
cortisol (a hormone) production from the adrenal glands as they respond to
minor joint inflammation in day-to-day living. But when the adrenals are
overwhelmed, even minor inflammation persists and eventually can cause
significant swelling and/or pain in the joint areas. The ligaments that
keep your joints in good alignment and ready to react to movement become
lax. Over time, joint pains, muscle spasms and limitations of movement can
occur that can elude the best intentions of chiropractors, physical
therapists and massage therapists.
What You Can Do
A patient suffering from structural pain seeks out the help of a
practitioner who specializes in addressing such areas of the body. In the
presence of adrenal exhaustion, such treatment will usually have only
temporary results, to the frustration of the patient and practitioner
alike. If the underlying root cause is truly adrenal exhaustion, this must
be addressed to completely resolve the symptoms of pain and spasm.
Treatment for adrenal stress revolves around lifestyle management (timing
of meals, amount of sleep and exercise), identifying any food
sensitivities, and using nutritional support to strengthen adrenal
function. Supplements such as vitamins B5, B6 and C, whole-root licorice
extract and certain forms of ginseng can all be supportive.
Gluten sensitivity is treated by following a strictly gluten-free diet.
Complete avoidance of all products containing wheat, rye and barley is the
only treatment. (Oats should also be avoided due to cross-contamination,
but gluten-free oats are available.) Identifying and treating other issues
such as adrenal fatigue and secondary infections are also important in
order to regain full health.
The presence of gluten sensitivity and its resultant stress upon the
adrenal glands is common, but rarely diagnosed. As a result, millions of
women suffer with symptoms that are often correctable with simple diet,
nutrition and lifestyle changes. And these are completely natural ways to
improve your health; treating gluten sensitivity and adrenal exhaustion
does not require drugs or surgery.
Ask your doctor about gluten sensitivity, particularly if you are
experiencing symptoms that could be related to adrenal fatigue. There are
lab tests available that test for both. It will give you and your doctor a
good sense of how your adrenals are functioning and whether your symptoms
are attributable to adrenal stress potentially caused by gluten.
Gluten, Gluten Everywhere...
If you're sensitive or intolerant to gluten, avoiding it can be a real
challenge. Just consider how many products contain wheat, rye or barley;
most cereals, breads and pastas, just for starters. (The next time you're
in the grocery store, check out the labels of a few of your favorite foods
and see which ones are likely to contain gluten.) Gluten is also found in
a number of processed foods, including salad dressings, egg substitutes,
flavored potato chips, imitation crab and even beer.
If you think you can get away with eating foods that contain gluten, bear
in mind that while sensitivity can cause a variety of unpleasant symptoms,
gluten intolerance or celiac disease is even more problematic, because
gluten actually triggers the body's immune system, which affects nutrient
absorption and can lead to malnutrition, anemia, osteoporosis and other
major health problems.
Vikki Petersen, DC, CCN, is the founder of the HealthNOW Medical Center in
Sunnyvale, Calif., and the author of The Gluten Effect: How "Innocent"
Wheat Is Ruining Your Health.