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The End of Pizza? The Spreading Celiac Epidemic
16 February 2010

by Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

The world is experiencing another pandemic, this time of a relatively little-known disease. And while most people have never heard of it, they may wind up contracting it, and if enough people contract it, it may spell the end of the pizza industry, as well as normal breads, cakes, and other baked goods. Allow me to first explain, and then speculate.

Celiac disease is one of many different autoimmune diseases. When someone with celiac disease is exposed to a particular protein found in the glutens of wheat, barley, or rye, it triggers the body to attack itself by tearing out the lining of the small intestine. In turn, this can, over time, cause someone with this disease to suffer from various kinds of malnutrition, because the food eaten is not absorbed by the body. Over an extended period, this can lead to nutritional imbalances such as calcium, iron, or vitamin deficiencies, general malnutrition, and even death. As well, this disease can open up the body to infection and other kinds of diseases, such as lymphoma, by lowering the bodyís natural defenses in the GI tract.

Fortunately, there is a treatment: you donít eat anything made with wheat, barley, rye Ė or oats, not because oats have the offending protein, but because the machinery that processes oats is almost invariably also used to process the other grains. Celiacs (those who suffer from celiac disease), therefore, follow a very strict regimen of avoiding foods made with these grains Ė including pizza, and all the other goodies mentioned.

Iím a celiac, and when I was diagnosed more than 20 years ago, I was told that the incidence of celiac disease in North America was less than one person in 2,000 (which was part of the reason why it took my doctors over 3 Ĺ years to figure out what was wrong with me). Today Iím told that the incidence is 1 in 125, and Iíve read some research that hints it might be as high as one person in four. Some people say that this is due to greater awareness leading to faster, and more frequent, diagnoses, and that is undoubtedly true. But I also believe there is something else going on, a literal global pandemic of celiac disease. I have no scientific proof; this is a hunch, but let me explain my reasoning.

Whatís the trigger for autoimmune diseases?

Not that much is known about celiac disease, in part because it was such a lonely (i.e., infrequently diagnosed) disease, but what is known is that it is genetically-linked. If you donít have a particular gene (as yet unknown), then you (probably) canít get it no matter what. If you do have the gene, then itís thought that some environmental factor triggers this genetic susceptibility, and then for the rest of your life you must avoid wheat, barley, rye, and oats, or suffer the consequences. What no one knows is what the environmental factor is. I believe itís either a particular bacterium, or a virus. I had no apparent signs of celiac disease for almost 40 decades before I was diagnosed Ė but you can chalk that up to lack of awareness if you like. One of my nephews had no symptoms at all, until suddenly, when he was 13, he suddenly became quite dramatically intolerant of gluten. Eating something made with gluten made him seriously sick for a period of several days ¨Ė a far more severe reaction than mine. And this intolerance for gluten just appeared out of nowhere, and without warning.

Not long ago, my daughter started to show similar signs of gluten intolerance, more like mine than my nephewís. She has yet to be formally diagnosed, but all the symptoms match.

So far, all Iíve demonstrated is what we already know: that thereís a clear genetic link to celiac disease. Yet, in my travels as a futurist, speaker, and consultant (not to mention as a tourist), Iíve found the awareness of celiac disease has risen dramatically in the last 10 years, and the availability of gluten-free foods has exploded, not just in the U.S. and Canada, but in the United Kingdom, France, Italy, China, the Caribbean, and Australia, where Iíve worked and traveled. Itís almost as if celiac disease is sweeping the world Ė which is exactly what I believe is happening.

I believe, as Iíve said, that there is some kind of bug that induces an infection that is triggering the widespread, but latent, genetic susceptibility for celiac disease. And for some reason, this infection is now sweeping the world. It may be something that a cold bug added to its DNA somewhere along the line, so that people with the genetic susceptibility who come down with that particular cold also wind up with celiac disease. Then, while they recover from the cold, they never recover from having their genetic weakness triggered and remain celiacs for life.

Multiple Sclerosis & Crohnís?

If Iím right in my presumption, then this also has implications for other autoimmune diseases. One of my cousins (I have a big extended family) recently died from Multiple Sclerosis. I had tried to stay current with research on the disease to see if I could spot potential treatments that could help. One of the more controversial studies done on MS was that it was caused by a bacterial infection, much like stomach ulcers, and could be treated with antibiotics. This never gained widespread acceptance among researchers, but suppose the study was half-right? Suppose that MS was triggered by a bacterial infection? Indeed, suppose this is the explanation for many or all autoimmune diseases, where the body attacks itself, triggered by some external factor? It would cause us a radical rethink on how to approach these diseases, including serious consideration of gene therapy to un-trigger the genetic susceptibility (if thatís possible) and cure celiac disease Ė as well as Crohnís, MS, and all the other autoimmunes.

As Iíve said, this is speculation on my part, but itís the only explanation that makes sense to me. I donít think that the widespread and seemingly accelerating celiac pandemic is adequately explained by greater awareness. Something else is at work, and seems to be spreading fast. And since we have no idea what it is, no defense is possible.

Meanwhile, the pizza, pie, and cake industries should be afraid, very afraid.

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N.B.: Yes, I am aware that there are gluten-free substitutes for most products that are made with wheat, including pizza. Consider the title and lead to be poetic license, if you will.

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© Copyright, Richard Worzel, February 2010.

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