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The Lismore Clinic, Ballyrafter,
Lismore, Co Waterford.
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Our Daily Bread

Cereal and toast for breakfast, sandwiches for lunch, and pasta for dinner (with a few biscuits in between), not to mention the many packaged foods that contain added flour, such as sauces, sausages, and taytos. Wheat-based foods now make up a major part of the Irish diet and as a result they have become a major cause of ill health.
Wheat only became such a significant part of the Irish diet relatively recently. For many years, the staple food in this country was the potato and Irish people simply did not develop the ability to tolerate wheat very well. However, in more recent times we have begun to consume lots of wheat-based foods made from refined flour, and large quantities of packaged foods that contain wheat or wheat proteins. The result is that Ireland now has the highest incidence of wheat intolerance and coeliac disease of any country in the world.

Wheat contains high levels of a protein called gluten, which has an irritant effect on the lining of the digestive system. Most of the wheat used today has been bred to contain very high levels of gluten. Furthermore, white flour contains no bran or wheatgerm and therefore the gluten becomes particularly concentrated.

Many people will remember being told that eating bread that is too fresh (or still warm from the oven) will cause tummy aches. This is because the gluten is still ‘sticky’ and therefore more irritating to the digestive system. As the bread begins to go stale (and when it is toasted) the gluten molecules should break apart and become less damaging. Unfortunately the modern use of ‘flour improvers’ keeps the gluten molecules sticky, which not only makes bread seem to stay fresher for longer, but also makes it much more irritating to the digestive system.

An individual’s tolerance to wheat is influenced by many things, such as genetic factors, diet, lifestyle, general health, and levels of stress. If there is poor tolerance, the high levels of gluten present in wheat cause inflammation of the lining of the digestive system, which leads to a number of other problems.

Firstly, the inflammation can lead to abdominal pain or discomfort, nausea, bloating, and chronic constipation or diarrhea. Many people also experience symptoms affecting the mouth such as chronic chapped lips or recurrent mouth ulcers. Secondly, inflammation in the digestive tract leads to malabsorption of essential nutrients, and encourages the growth of unfriendly bacteria and yeasts, which cause a range of symptoms, including digestive problems, sweet cravings, thrush, sinus problems, lowered immunity, headaches, tiredness and poor concentration.

Gluten-induced inflammation may cause the body to become even more sensitive to the offending protein. Individuals can also develop intolerance to other foods that contain smaller amounts of gluten such as spelt, rye, barley and oats. Coeliac disease is a specific type of gluten intolerance, which can be diagnosed by a blood test and intestinal biopsy. However, there is also a condition known as ‘non-coeliac gluten-intolerance’ in which an individual can be highly intolerant to gluten, despite not testing positive for coeliac disease.

Various forms of allergy testing are now widely available with many individuals being given long lists of foods to exclude from the diet. However it is often not necessary or even safe to stop eating many different foods. In most cases it is just one or two foods that are causing a problem. The intolerance to other items is usually a result of the damage caused by the main problematic foods. For some people, cutting out many different foods can lead to nutritional deficiencies, or (in rare cases) to a situation where intolerances develop to the foods still being eaten, leading to an ever decreasing choice of well-tolerated foods.

Fortunately when wheat, and if necessary, other gluten-containing foods are removed from the diet for a period of at least 6 weeks, and appropriate herbal remedies are prescribed to reduce inflammation and heal the damage to the gut lining, the tolerance to other foods tends to increase. Wheat can be substituted with gluten-free grains such as rice, corn, buckwheat, millet and quinoa, which are available from health food stores. If grains such as rye, oats and spelt (which contain lower levels of gluten) are tolerated, they should be rotated to prevent further intolerances developing. Herbs such as chamomile help to reduce inflammation and allergic responses, gotu kola repairs the damage to the digestive system, and goldenseal helps to ensure foods are properly digested and destroys any unfriendly micro-organisms. Many other herbs are available to help with other symptoms such as fatigue, bloating, and constipation.

For some people, removing problem foods from the diet can lead to unpleasant detox reactions which can be severe in a few cases. Therefore, any attempt to address suspected food intolerance should be conducted under the guidance of a qualified medical herbalist or nutritional therapist.