Osteoporosis: Could a gluten-free diet strengthen your bones?


When the time comes to discuss the use of dietary supplements to prevent or treat osteoporosis, naturally calcium will be at the top of the list. But as Ive mentioned in previous e-alerts, calcium is poorly absorbed by the body, so an additional supplement of magnesium is needed to help solve this problem. Vitamin D has also been shown to support good bone health.

But whats missing from this picture?

According to a recent study, some osteoporosis patients should ask their doctors for a blood test to determine if they need to make a major change in their diets – a change that could reap significant benefits in maintaining healthy bones.

Block that gluten!
More than 1 in 300 people in the UK may have coeliac disease (CD), a condition in which gluten (a component of grains) reduces the small intestines ability to absorb essential nutrients, such as calcium. Unfortunately, the symptoms of coeliac disease are often so subtle that many people dont even know they have it.

A study reported in the Archives of Internal Medicine in the US last month investigated the link between coeliac disease and osteoporosis.
US researchers at Washington University School of Medicine recruited 840 subjects. About 260 of the subjects had been diagnosed with osteoporosis. Blood tests and other diagnostic tools revealed that CD was much more common among subjects with osteoporosis. In addition, subjects with the most severe cases of coeliac disease tended to have the most severe cases of osteoporosis.

Subjects who were diagnosed with CD were asked to follow a gluten-free diet for one year. Bone mineral density was measured before and after the follow up year. In these subjects who followed the non-gluten diet, gastrointestinal symptoms were relieved and bone density improved.

Lead researcher, Dr William Stenson, stated that he and his colleagues believe that the non-gluten diet promoted intestinal healing, which resulted in better absorption of calcium and vitamin D and a reversal of bone loss. The researchers recommend that doctors should use blood tests to screen osteoporosis patients for coeliac disease.

Remarkable results 
To understand coeliac disease, first we need to look at gluten.
Gluten is a typical component of several different grains. As a primary ingredient of flour, gluten delivers protein and gives bread a higher rise. I asked HSI Panellist Dr Allan Spreen, for his insights on gluten basics, and heres what he had to say:

The high-gluten grains are within the mnemonic BROW (Barley, Rye, Oat, Wheat). When completely unrefined, these grains in and of themselves are not the problem. Its when sensitive individuals run into them that trouble can occur (not counting the dangers of refining them into low-nutrient, low-fibre, high-starch blood sugar stressors). Most often, reactions can involve swings in blood sugar, which can manifest as irritability, headaches, difficulty concentrating, fatigue, increased appetite, and subsequently weight problems.

Constant exposure to one food can cause a person to become sensitised. This is most common in the case of wheat, since wheat is absolutely everywhere. If a person craves grains, cereals, breads, etc., or eats them every day, I often test them by avoiding the potential offending agent for 7 days (21 for dairy products). Sometimes the results are remarkable.

Hard to avoid
The problem with diagnosis of coeliac disease is that the symptoms are sometimes directly related to digestion (as with abdominal cramping, unexplained weight loss, and chronic diarrhoea), but sometimes not (as with osteoporosis, joint pain, and depression). If any of these symptoms occur in a patient with a family history of CD, this should stand out as a red flag for any physician.

The primary treatment for coeliac disease is adherence to a strict non-gluten diet – but this is easier said than done. Gluten is sometimes hidden in foods such as soups, soy sauce, low-fat or non-fat products, and even in sweets such as jelly beans. Some common food ingredients that may contain gluten include: modified food starch, hydrolysed vegetable or plant protein, and some binders and fillers, as well as malt and natural flavourings.

Fortunately, if diagnosed early and addressed before it has a chance to do serious damage, coeliac disease is relatively easy to treat. If you believe that you may be experiencing symptoms of coeliac disease (especially if the family history is there), ask your doctor or dietician to provide you with specific strategies for recognising and avoiding hidden gluten in your diet.

In addition, a number of studies have shown that a plant-based enzyme called Aspergillus oryzae may be effective in protecting the intestine from the effects of gluten. Enzyme formulas containing Aspergillus oryzae are available from sources on the Internet. However, anyone with coeliac disease or other serious digestive problems should first discuss the use of enzyme supplements with a health care provider.

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