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120511chucknorrisI agree with your position on product labeling. It’s our right to know what’s in the products we buy. I hear that there has been a breakthrough in gluten labeling. Is that true? – “Looking at Labels” in Rhode Island

As of this week, federal regulations are in effect that require labeling of products listed as “gluten-free” to include information as to exactly what those labels mean. The Food and Drug Administration is requiring that packaged food labeled gluten-free or “free of gluten” cannot contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten.

At this point, the use of the gluten-free label is voluntary, so it may make this appear to be a small victory. But for the many who suffer from gluten intolerance, it is being hailed as a major milestone.

(Consumers should know they can file complaints about compliance with the regulation through the FDA’s Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition by calling 240-402-2405 or by going to http://www.fda.gov and typing “medwatch form” into the search box.)

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It has zero nutritional value. People who suffer from an autoimmune disorder called celiac disease can become extremely sick from ingesting even the smallest amount of gluten. It can set off a range of other reactions in people sensitive to gluten, including headaches, intestinal problems and respiratory issues. About 1 in 133 people in the U.S. are now thought to have celiac disease, says Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Interestingly, the market for gluten-free foods far exceeds those who have a medical reaction to it. It tops $6 billion annually. Gluten-free diets have become fashionable, prompting hundreds of new gluten-free products. This trend may also be trivializing a real medical problem faced by those who must avoid it for health reasons, Fasano warns. We can easily add celiac disease to the list of allergic diseases unheard of a generation ago, discussed in my column several weeks ago.

Does celiac disease’s origin all come down to a gut reaction? Some researchers say yes.

Some researchers have speculated that disruptions of gut microbiota play a significant role in celiac disease. What are microbiota? They are clusters of bacteria that reside in different parts of the body.

An increasing amount of research is beginning to demonstrate that these diverse populations of microorganisms that coexist in our guts, on our skin, in our mouths and elsewhere are not just incubators of infection but a competing and ever-changing mix of good and bad microbes, and it’s a system much more complex than previously believed.

We may think of ourselves as just human, but we’re really a mass of microorganisms housed in a human shell, says Katrina Ray, a senior editor of Nature Reviews. She notes that every person alive is host to about 100 trillion bacterial cells. They outnumber human cells by a ratio of 10-to-1 and account for 99.9 percent of the unique genes in the body.

The vast number of microbes in the gut could be considered a “human microbial ‘organ.’” The lack or depletion of “good” microbes is now being identified with a number of serious disorders, and it is believed that a distortion in the microbial balance in the human gut may play a significant role in disease.

Like ecosystems the world over, the human microbiome is losing its diversity, to the potential detriment of the health of those it inhabits, concludes Dr. Martin J. Blaser, a specialist in infectious diseases at the New York University School of Medicine and the director of the Human Microbiome Program. Blaser has studied the role of bacteria in disease for more than three decades. His research extends well beyond infectious diseases to autoimmune conditions and other ailments that have been increasing sharply worldwide.

For example, researchers have linked the serious rise in asthma rates to the rapid disappearance of Helicobacter pylori, a bacterial pathogen that colonizes the human stomach. Once, virtually everyone harbored this microbe, which European researchers have shown protected mice from developing hallmarks of allergic asthma.

Blaser links the declining variety within the microbiome to our increased susceptibility to serious, often chronic conditions, from allergies and celiac disease to Type 1 diabetes and obesity. He primarily blames an overuse of wide-spectrum antibiotics for the decline.

“We need narrow-spectrum antibiotics designed to knock out the pathogenic bacteria without disrupting the health-promoting ones,” Blaser says. “This will make it possible to treat serious infections with less collateral effect.”

Though I am not trying to make a connection, it is impossible to discuss public health at this time without joining in the worldwide concern regarding the latest outbreak of the deadly Ebola virus, which has been devastating parts of Africa since 1976 and, with this new outbreak, may soon be spreading elsewhere. There is currently no licensed vaccine to prevent Ebola, and there are no licensed drugs to arrest infection.

According to a recent post by National Geographic’s Helen Branswell, those who come down with the virus and seek medical help can expect to be treated the way hospitals traditionally care for Ebola patients, with “supportive care.” They will receive broad-spectrum antibiotics to fend off opportunistic infections such as pneumonia and sepsis, which can slip in and kill when an immune system is overwhelmed. They will be fed, if they can eat. They will be given rehydration fluids to replace those that have drained from their bodies because they are racked by diarrhea and vomiting. The idea is to buy enough time to tip the balance in favor of an immune system initially overpowered by Ebola’s onslaught. Survival will be dependent on having a strong immune system.

It is yet another example – and a powerful one – of why we need to do everything in our power to build immunity, not continually deplete it.

Write to Chuck Norris with your questions about health and fitness. Follow Chuck Norris through his official social media sites, on Twitter @chucknorris and Facebook’s “Official Chuck Norris Page.” He blogs at ChuckNorrisNews.blogspot.com.

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