The effects of gluten on health
Gluten sensitivity is not restricted to those with coeliac disease, says a food-allergy expert.
According to Ford, a Christchurch-based paediatrician who is a world-renowned expert in food allergies, people who are sensitive to gluten do not necessarily suffer from coeliac disease, which affects the small intestine, as is the common belief among most experts.
Ford says that up to one-third of all cases of chronic illness and fatigue could be caused through gluten sensitivity, and up to one in 10 people may be suffering from Gluten Syndrome.
"Gluten causes tiredness, anxiety and stress. The medical world accepts it can damage the gut, but it can also damage the brain, skin and nerves. Until now, many of these illnesses have been blamed on everything from stress at home to other medical conditions, including depression," he says.
Ford has diagnosed more than 1000 children with Gluten Syndrome, identifying the sensitivity to gluten through blood tests. He says the condition can be hereditary, and encourages the parents and siblings of those who test positive to also undergo the blood tests.
"It was not until the 1990s that people began to understand that there could be a reaction to gluten without the presence of coeliac disease. Many of my patients come to me with heartburn, tummy pains, constipation, or having passed the age of four or five and still experiencing ongoing eczema.
"In the 1950s and 1960s there were books written stating that headaches, tummy pain, etc, were what childhood was all about. My experience is that many of these ailments can sometimes be put down to the Gluten Syndrome."
Ford says that while food products aimed at gluten-intolerant people can be expensive, they don't have to cost a fortune. "Many families find that when their children aren't eating gluten in their diets, their entire eating habits actually improve. They are more likely to turn to fruit and vegetables and meat as opposed to feeding up on bread and pasta."
Patients who are diagnosed with Gluten Syndrome are recommended to exclude gluten from their diet, and Ford says the results have been amazing. "People have had headaches that they have suffered for years suddenly cease. Eczema has cleared up, children's behavioural patterns and sleep patterns have improved. I have seen lives changed when gluten-sensitive people change their diet – they are genuinely shocked at how much better and happier they feel."
Seven-year-old Maleka first visited Ford as a 22-month-old toddler. According to her mother, Kiri Bishop-Smith, Maleka wasn't doing very well: she wasn't eating as she should, she wasn't growing or sleeping and was generally an unhappy and unsettled child. The family had seen several specialists, GPs and a homoeopath, but despite being on a variety of medication, things weren't improving.
"A work colleague suggested we see Dr Ford," says Bishop-Smith. "At first her blood tests came back negative for Gluten Syndrome, but when she turned three we took her for a follow-up and they were positive. We put Maleka on a gluten-free diet and slowly weaned her off the other medication. Within a few months the bacterial and viral infections she was suffering from ceased, her eczema cleared up, the thrush stopped, she began eating and stopped crying constantly. It was amazing."
While the initial transition did have its difficult moments – such as trying to explain to a three-year-old why she can't have icecream, Bishop-Smith says it was worth it, and today Maleka understands why she can't eat gluten. "It's not hard to prepare food for someone who has Gluten Syndrome. Maleka eats lots of fruit and vegetables and we buy gluten-free sausages and bread. It's a case of checking packaging for wheat, barley, rye and, to a certain extent, oats, and there is definitely an increase in the number of foods out there without these in them."
While Ford's findings as to the vast range of effects gluten can have on people are disputed by many in the medical field, he says that of the hundreds of sick children he has tested over the years and found to be gluten sensitive, 84 per cent have improved on a gluten-free diet. "There are many more people who are suffering at the moment and don't even know why. It's time the medical world woke up to the problem," he urges.
Ford has recently published a book, The Gluten Syndrome. It identifies a range of health complaints, tells people how to find out if they are gluten sensitive, and offers support, information and direction regarding food choices to manage the problem. He expects some doctors will dispute his book's findings.