Gluten and Other Food Intolerances in Pets
Gluten awareness has skyrocketed in the recent past. Although most of the focus has been on the negative effects of gluten on human health, there are a number of other common dietary culprits that affect man…and his pets. In fact, the Big 4 – gluten grains, dairy, soy and corn – are wreaking havoc on the health of the four-legged as much as – if not more than – those who walk on two.
Below is the transcript of a lecture given during the North American Veterinary Conference in January of 2013. Of course, I love to talk more than write so “you really had to be there”. But…this paper covers most of the important points, with the exception of a few new items I added to the PowerPoint in the days immediately preceding the talks. For example, the science behind wheat’s harm is in a dynamic state and we are learning more and more every day exactly why today’s wheat is harmful for everyone and every living thing that consumes it.
I will be writing more about WGA (wheat germ agglutinin) and the science of epigenetics in the near future. In the meantime, Google those terms for more insight into how wheat and the other members of the “big 4” do their harm as well as how and why we react so negatively when these inflammatory proteins (lectins) enter the bloodstream and travel to the far reaches of our body.
Hope this helps,
Gluten and Other Food Intolerances in Pets
John B.Symes, D.V.M.
Beltline Animal Hospital, PC
In today’s market, most veterinarians understand that their clients get what they pay for in a pet food and that the higher grade foods come from certain recognizable manufacturers, the majority of which can only be found at veterinary offices or specialty pet supply outlets. But…is that axiom really true? Does purchasing the most expensive food guarantee that the pet will be receiving the highest quality nutrition that the industry has to offer?
The unfortunate truth is that pet food is not as scientifically formulated as most would like to think. For the most part, Fido’s food is made with convenience and cost of manufacturing in mind more than nutritional science. Yes, the first few ingredients look appetizing enough and there have been essential nutrients such as vitamins and minerals added to the mix. But are these ingredients natural for the pet and are they readily available for absorption and use by their body? Here in lies the crux of the matter.
The wake-up call comes when one realizes that, once the meat sources are removed from the diet, the remaining ingredients are mostly unnatural for the pet. If we exclude the beef, poultry, fish, and lamb, the other calorie sources are mostly wheat, barley, corn, rice, potatoes, and soy, all of which are man-raised crops that the dog and cat would never even stumble upon much less consume in the wild. I love to inquire of my clients “How would a pet get rice…swim to Viet Nam?”
But what is the real problem with these complex carbohydrates being in the diet? Humans consume these with every meal and they are doing just fine, aren’t they? Ahhh…are we??? If we were all thriving on these things, we wouldn’t be attending lectures on food intolerance, would we? The problem is that the grains listed above cause some universal problems among humans and pets as do a number of other problematic foods and food additives that eclipse even the grains in their contribution to health issues.
A Life-Changing Diagnosis
To digress for just a moment, I have been a veterinarian for over three decades. However, twelve years ago I had something come along that changed my entire life – professionally, physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. I finally found, for the better part of my life, that I have been suffering from celiac disease, otherwise known as gluten intolerance. For forty-something years, I suffered like most other celiacs from a myriad of symptoms, including allergies, heart burn, intestinal problems, depression/chronic fatigue, insomnia, memory and balance difficulties, joint pain, and even fibromyalgia. I was taking at least four prescription drugs daily, was caffeine addicted, and was quite frankly not having any fun anymore.
Within four days of eliminating all wheat from my diet, the recovery began…and it was dramatic. On day four, I felt like I did not need coffee for the first time in twenty years. By the end of the first week, my long-term heartburn was gone and my IBS symptoms were coming to a screeching halt. By the end of the month, my fibromyalgia, back pain, insomnia, and chronic fatigue were well on their way to being little more than a bad dream. I was shocked and amazed at the health gains made from simply eliminating this “staple” food from my diet, This incredible recovery led me into a decade of intensive, broad-based medical research centered around nutrition.
During this phenomenal time, I created a Website (Dogtorj.com) to chronicle my discoveries. From there, I began doing Internet interviews and consultations which led to more discoveries while attempting to help pets…and their owners…with their chronic medical problems. My life had suddenly become very different.
I am now over twelve years gluten, casein and soy-free, off all drugs (prescription and OTC), symptom-free, and feeling better than I did when I was a teenager. Yes, this miraculous recovery got my full attention as a patient and as a doctor. How could this be? How could I have been suffering from what millions of people and pets are still experiencing, and yet, become completely well in such a short period of time? How could all of these conditions be linked together?
Celiac Disease as a Model
I am sure that most of you are now aware of celiac disease (gluten intolerance). Many of us were taught about gluten intolerance in the Irish setter in the 70’s, although judging by the response I have received from colleagues and even those who taught me medicine in school, this has been long since forgotten.
However, seven years ago, when my brother, father, son, and I all discovered that we suffered from this condition, gluten intolerance was considered a “rare disorder affecting less than 1:5,000 Americans.” In my very first week of research, I found that celiac disease was being diagnosed in nearly 1:100 people in the United Kingdom, Italy, and Scandinavia. This, of course, was totally incongruous with what was being reported in the medical literature in the U.S., especially once our common ancestry was taken into account. I also found that 40% of first degree relatives to a celiac would have the condition, a figure that certainly applies to my immediate family. Needless to say, that obvious dichotomy also fanned the flames of my developing passion for this newfound research project as it made me feel like I was a pioneer of sorts.
On the very first day of researching celiac disease, I experienced what I would later call “the revelation”. As I read about the disease states from which the gluten intolerant individual suffered, the celiac rapidly emerged as the “who’s who” of illnesses in humans…and animals. We were gobbled up with allergies, IBD, immune-mediated diseases, and cancer, while suffering from staggering rates of hypothyroidism and Grave’s disease, diabetes, lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, intestinal lymphoma, colon cancer, and much more. This mirrored what I saw every day in my veterinary practice.
In addition, researchers were suggesting that the number of people with celiac disease was close to 1:30 people. Knowing this fun fact and reading about the myriad of medical conditions that had been directly linked to gluten intolerance, I began to truly understand medicine for the first time in 20 years. The painful part was seeing that wheat alone made up a whopping 30% of the calories in the standard American diet (abbreviated SAD) and was one of the primary ingredients in our pet’s dry foods. The “revelation” had occurred.
“But how could something as simple as wheat and a staple of our diets cause such huge medical problems?” I wondered. It did not take long to find “the answer”, which would become the title of my first major Internet paper.
How Gluten Does It’s Harm
In celiac disease, gluten is the culprit. Gluten is a glycoprotein comprised of two main components -glutelins and prolamines, the latter being the most troublesome protein portion. Glutelins are simple proteins found in cereal grains that yield amino acids when hydrolyzed. Prolamines are the storage proteins of the grains and are insoluble in water but soluble in alcohol (and vinegar). Gliadin is the real problem among the prolamines and it is this particular glycoprotein that is found in most of the immune complexes of the major diseases we will cover. Measuring antibodies to gliadin is one of the principal diagnostic aids in identifying those suffering from true celiac disease. At 69%, gliadin makes up the majority of the prolamine portion of wheat.
The immune response to gluten is often insidious but potentially devastating. Gluten is an innately sticky glycoprotein and is used to make industrial adhesives, making it easy to see why it adheres to villi lining the intestinal tract, particularly those of the small bowel. Villous atrophy of the duodenum and jejunum results from a complex of immune responses directed at gliadin in sensitized individuals. The resultant increase in gut permeability allows these unnatural polypeptides to enter the blood stream of the infant and adult alike in biological forms that were unintended. These pro-inflammatory proteins have both direct and indirect effects on cells and their function resulting in a myriad of symptoms and medical conditions. In their smallest form, the harmful proteins from gluten and other potentially harmful foods are called lectins, the most inflammatory being those from the “Big 4” foods – gluten grains, dairy, soy/legumes, corn as well as the nightshade family of foods (tomatoes, potatoes, eggplant and peppers).
So, the basic pathophysiology of celiac disease arises from the glue-like glycoproteins of gluten adhering to the villi of the duodenum and jejunum and inducing a patchy distribution of villous atrophy in sensitized individuals. Once villous atrophy reaches a critical level, the hormone zonulin is released from the gut wall, increasing the overall permeability of the intestine and establishing what is known as the “leaky gut syndrome”. A number of serious consequences follow with the most critical being a chronic, insidious malabsorption syndrome. (And here is where I get a little crazy.)
How many veterinarians and doctors remember being taught in medical school what the duodenum absorbs in the way of essential nutrients? Sadly, not many do according to my numerous conversations with colleagues and MD acquaintances. In fact, I have had board-certified doctors look me in the eye and tell me that the duodenum absorbs “nothing”. Once I have pulled the stake out of heart, I diplomatically correct them by explaining that I, too, thought the same thing at one time until I learned differently through my study of celiac disease.
The fact is, not only does the duodenum not absorb “nothing”, it and the neighboring jejunum take in the vast majority of our calcium, iron, iodine, B complex, vitamin C, and numerous trace minerals such as zinc, copper, magnesium, manganese, boron, lithium, and more. Once we grasp this crucial part of the medical puzzle, the “revelation” begins and other important parts begin to fall into place. Osteoporosis, iron deficiency anemia, thyroid disorders, immune incompetence, enzyme deficiency, etc. all have much more palpable origins. And…the reason why the celiac is the “who’s who” of what goes wrong with a human (or any other simple-stomached animal that is afflicted) suddenly becomes quite clear. We are malabsorbing the nutrients that are essential to our well-being while being bombarded by proteins that threaten the health of each and every cell. And that is why I often refer to the small intestine as “Pandora’s Box”: Damage that area and we unleash the multitude of plagues that await us.
Gluten is not the Only Culprit!
But here is the really bad news: Gluten is not the only culprit. I also found this out the hard way. As I stated earlier, within days of eliminating all gluten (wheat, barley, rye) from my diet, I felt better than I had in years. Symptoms were disappearing rapidly and I was totally amazed, which catapulted me into years of research and “consumer advocacy”. Yes, I was hooked for life and accepted my new mission with reckless abandon.
The most pressing problem was figuring out what in the world I would eat. (Later I would write the paper “What in the World Do I Eat?”) I actually embraced the weight loss that quickly followed my new dietary commitment but some frustration set in as I scrambled to find “clean” (gluten-free) foods. I had always avoided cheese and eaten limited amounts of ice cream because of the battle of the bulge. But, I quickly realized “Hey, I can eat all I want now because I’m losing weight and they are gluten-free.” So, I started putting cheese on everything, drinking more milk, and eating a lot more ice cream as dessert. And, within weeks my symptoms were all coming back – the heartburn/IBS, headaches, joint pain, fibromyalgia, brain fog/depression, and insomnia. “What is up with this? Milk is supposed to be nature’s perfect food.” I quickly found out differently…and why.
Because I had found that wheat was the number two human, dog, and cat food allergen and that the culprit, gluten, was used to make industrial adhesives and that the allergies were formed at the time the damage was done to the gut, I naturally asked “Where is the ‘glue’ in milk?” . That is when I found that gluten had an evil twin and its name was casein. Casein is the glycoprotein that makes up 80% of the protein content of cow’s milk…and the one that Borden first used to make Elmer’s Glue.
So, I eliminated all dairy products and, in a few short days, my symptoms began disappearing again. Within 3 weeks, my chronic shoulder pain resolved, my sleeping improved, and I was feeling better than I had in my entire life. However, the quest for what to eat had just gotten more complicated.
I began substituting soy products for the dairy, drinking soy milk, eating soy cheese, and having soy-based “ice cream” for dessert. However, within a coupe of weeks, my stomach was in an absolute knot and many of my symptoms were returning, especially the pain and insomnia. “Now, what is up with this?” I exclaimed. “I thought soy was supposed to be a health food!” It took less than an hour on the Internet to be convinced that we had all been duped into thinking that soy was healthy for us. And yes, soy is used to make industrial adhesives as well. In fact, they make super-glues from soy, which are commonly used in the automobile industry (e.g. to stick your rear-view mirror to the windshield).
When I eliminated the soy from my diet, my health returned and my research project expanded. As hard as it was to believe that the main three foods thought of by most to be among the healthiest things we could consume – wheat, dairy, and soy – were, in fact, the absolute worst possible things for many people to eat, this incongruity dove-tailed perfectly with other things I was finding to be upside down. These things included the aforementioned lack of knowledge concerning the duodenum’s function, the true incidence of celiac disease, and the fact that we used fever-reducers to stop virus-induced fevers and employed carcinogens to treat cancer.
Therefore, I was not surprised to find that corn was the fourth guy on the list, rounding out the “four horsemen of the apocalypse”, a term I love to use when being melodramatic. Once I had eliminated the first three “riders”, I realized how crummy corn made me feel when I ate it. One more trip to the “glue” list and I found that they did indeed make glue from corn. The best they could do, however, was to put cardboard boxes together with it. “No wonder it was the most tolerable of the big 4”, I thought. And, corn is better tolerated by humans, dogs, and cats than are wheat, dairy, and soy. The history of the pet food industry sure proved this.
A retrospective look at my veterinary career and a quick review of the history of the pet food industry both fit perfectly with my study of food intolerance in people. When I graduated from veterinary school in 1979, the vast majority of pet foods were made with corn as the carbohydrate source. Pets were doing “OK” on these foods, with a rather select group of dog breeds having unusual difficulty with allergies, immune- mediated diseases and early cancer-related deaths. Our allergy-suffering breeds were little white dogs like the Poodle and Westie. Other trouble breeds were Cockers, Beagles, Boxers, Goldens retrievers, Irish setters, and German shepherds, which were experiencing the atopy, “autoimmune” disorders, and higher rates of cancer. The average dog was reasonably healthy and allergies were just a problem within the dog world, not the problem.
Immune-mediated diseases were something that we actually got excited about seeing as diagnosticians, not something that made us wonder about the future of medicine when we would later see them come in three at a time. Cancer was always a major cause of death of pets but, again, not something that we would get so “ho-hum” about as we would later see mast cell tumors every month and watch dogs drop like flies by age 6.5 years of bone cancer. Suddenly, we were talking about medicine during our lunch hours rather than our golf games or our significant other.
What happened? First of all, we had a “wheat glut” develop in this country. It was a definable geopolitical phenomenon that resulted in wheat becoming cheaper than corn. Suddenly, the pet food industry started making products, particularly dried kibble, out of wheat instead of corn….and Pandora’s Box was opened. It was during this time that we adopted the “interesting” routine of mixing in a new food with the old for 3-4 days. Why did we do this? Well, if we didn’t blend it gradually, the pet would often develop diarrhea or even vomit on the newly introduced food.
Now let me stop right here and ask an important question…or three? Where in the world were our brains at that time? Why did we not suspect that something might be wrong with the new food if it caused diarrhea and even vomiting? Were we really that out of touch with the role that diet played in gastrointestinal health? I think the thing that fooled us all was the fact that these pet “adapted” to the food so quickly if we mixed it in. And, it seemed logical to mix in a new food to avoid shocking the GI tract, so “problem solved”, right? But in retrospect, we were truly asleep at the wheel, not understanding the impact of the new wheat-based food and having long since forgotten our lectures on gluten intolerance in the Irish setter (if we ever got one). This went right over our heads, including that of yours truly. So, I am not throwing stones but “Man, were we stupid or what???”
But out of this nutritional quagmire arose what would soon become a giant among pet food companies – Hill’s Science Diet. They claimed that their foods were scientifically formulated to produce fewer allergies, less skin problems, less intestinal upset, and even smaller stools. And…they did! So, what did they do to accomplish this? Basically, all that they did was avoid taking that big left-hand turn that everyone else did when choosing the wheat route. Hill’s stayed on the corn road. They opted to stick with the number four food allergen than swap to what was already number two. How simple. How wise.
Yes, corn was better tolerated than wheat. That did not make corn perfect by any means, but comparatively speaking, it stood head and shoulders above this newest mistake that was being made – the single worst decision ever made in veterinary nutrition – the transition to wheat-based diets. Thankfully, this came at the same time that we made one of the wisest decisions in pet nutrition, taking the dairy out of dog and cat foods. Many can still remember the milk-coated puppy and kitten chows we used to feed. Those my age will also be able to testify that they have seen a reduction in asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes since the dairy was removed from these foods. In a medical study I found a number of years ago, it was boldly stated that our children who got cow milk in the first five days of life had a 40-50 times higher rate of these three conditions. Understanding lectins puts all of this together.
In retrospect, the trouble-breeds mentioned above still do have more problems with corn to this day, which have only worsened thanks to the genetic modification of today’s corn. I believe that it is highly likely that all of the “Big 4” food intolerance share the genetic tendency that celiacs experience (in that 40% of first degree relatives will have the condition). Therefore, I recommend the elimination of corn from the diet of all pets – and people who will listen – but particularly from that of the breeds mentioned above. I have now confirmed this strong suspicion of genetic corn intolerance in these breeds by doing food allergy tests and seeing a very high rate of corn allergies among them.
Thankfully, there are those in the pet food industry who are wising up, with more and more of them proudly displaying the absence of wheat, no corn, and soy on their bags. Unfortunately, they know that wheat is a problem but they obviously don’t understand why it is so harmful, as they turn right around and use barley and rye, the other two gluten grains, as substitutes. They must still not understand celiac disease and the fact that the allergies are formed at the time the gluten induces the villous damage. Are their products true reflections of the extent of their nutritional research?
Their knowledge must be quite limited as dairy products are making a major comeback. Yes, even some of the most dedicated and “holistic” pet food companies are utilizing cottage cheese, skim milk, and yogurt in their newest formulas. When I call or write to these companies, they try to ease my dissatisfaction by stating that it is all lactose-free. Once again, is that the extent of their research on the topic of dairy intolerance? Do they not know that lactose is just a little ‘ol sugar and that the proteins in cow milk, particularly casein (and even more specifically alpha s-1 casein), are the true culprits? Unfortunately, many are under the misconception that lactose is the main issue in milk.
Hopefully, as gluten intolerance becomes better known, the truth about casein, soy, and corn intolerance will finally emerge. Then we will have “the four horsemen” on the run and people will learn that they do have their health destinies, as well as those of their pets, in their own hands.