How a World War II Famine Helped Solve a 2,000-Year-Old Medical Mystery



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Sources:

Ewbank, Anne, How Famine Under the Nazis Revealed the Cause of Celiac Disease, Atlas Obscura, March 29, 2018,

Van Berge-Henegouwen, GP & Mulder, CJ, Pioneer in the Gluten Free Diet: Willem-Karel Dicke 1905-1962, Over 50 Years of Gluten-Free Diet, Gut Magazine, November 1993,

Neimark, Jill, Doctors Once Thought Bananas Cured Celiac Disease. They Saved Kids’ Lives – At a Cost, NPR, May 24, 2017,

Adler, Douglas, The Grim Origins of ‘Gluten-Free’, Discover, April 22, 2019,

39 comments

  1. A major contribution to our health today is the increase of population. Diet is an extremely complex knowledge base that can only be appreciated at its current level because of the massive variety of situations and observers over an incredible amount of time that allow situations like the ones described here to be observed and described. Everything else fits inside of that.

  2. "… and the powerful Banana lobby …" I know, in the more logical parts of my brain, that this is true (see Dole's past influence on US policy in Central America), but this sounds so ludicrous.

  3. I don't have celiac or an allergy to gluten but I usually end up hating myself about 30 minutes to an hour later. I feel really tired and slowed down somtimes with stomach pain, discomfort, or headaches paired with the fatigue depending on how much I eat.

    I thought I had an allergy but nothing came up when I was tested. I rarely ate bread and related foods growing up so I was told my digestive system just never got used to it and has problems processing it.

  4. I knew it was a pretty unpleasant condition to have, but I was unaware that it was quite this terrible. I was mostly aware of the nasty intestinal discomfort people could get, and that it just generally wasn't healthy to consume gluten. But I didn't realize it actually killed a lot of people over the ages. It's frankly absurd that this was a known condition for 2000 years and it took that long for someone to at least figure out 'Don't eat wheat and stuff' was a relatively simple solution (though it would be a problem in communities that relied on those as staples, especially in the days before international trade was affordable).

    On the plus side, the 'gluten free' fad gives more options to the people that need it, but on the other hand it diminishes the seriousness of the condition. I'm pretty sure that a significant majority of the people that buy the stuff don't need it.

    BTW: Did Simon say 'affecting around 100 people worldwide'? That can't be right….100,000 even sounds too low, but 100 million sounds too high.

  5. Thank you for the video and posting this during "Movember". As a former sufferer of Ulcerative Colitis, I really appreciate the attention on the various gastro issues/diseases many suffer from. You note that the banana lobby played a role in suppressing diagnoses of Celiac in the US, but I would have to think the huge wheat growers lobby has also helped suppress the issues with our modern day wheat. Either way, thank you again and love the content.

  6. What about villi damage from gluten with ordinary people, usually in 30s to 50s , The gut intestine then encounter a zero sugar drink ? The zero sugar sweetener can't be digested by the body, so then it should just enter the body via the cut gut villi ? Would this not cause an autoimmune condition like autoimmune hepatitis? Like where they say your bodies own immune system starts attacking itself. I think the combo of cut villi plus materials entering the body stimulates the autoimmune response of the body. We end up with over active immune systems triggered by damaged guts. I think coeliac is the most extreme or reaction of a weak gut, but with stronger gut people I think gluten will eventually cause some autoimmune condition. So maybe its time not to live on pizza, exercise or not, you can't run off damaged villi in your gut, only change diet. That's what I did to fight autoimmune hepatitis nearly ten years ago, instead of taking prescription medication like immuran, which is an immune system suppressant. I could be dead from covid if I had of kept taking the immune suppressant. The autoimmune treatment is take immuran for life by the way. I was also fed gluten loaded toast in hospital ? Should doctors start acknowledging diet more ? Instead of trying to sell pills.

  7. I work in restaurants and absolutely hate GF people. It’s crazy how 50% of females between the ages 20-57 are allergic to gluten, and .00001% of the population before 2007 were allergic and to this day 85% of the GF people I ask “What is gluten?” Tell me they don’t know or “that is complicated to explain”

  8. I do not have celiac disease, but I have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (very common in type 1 diabetics). This story is fascinating and gives me even more sympathy for those with celiac.

  9. About a decade ago I suspected I may have celiac disease because I experienced abdominal swelling when eating wheat products.
    I was on and off gluten for years but the bloating never completely went away (which is why I was on and off GF: frustration), and sometimes I could have wheat products with no consequences.

    Last year I tried keto or, more specifically, a very low carb diet and I felt the best I ever felt.
    If it weren't a diet so far above my budget (where I live, nothing is cheaper than carbs) I'd definitely go low-carb.

    Sorry for sounding like a keto fan, but all I'm saying is, maybe the doctor who favored a fatty diet had a point…

  10. Not celiac related, but my grandmother was from Poland and during WWII was kept in a refugee camp in S.A. She sold her wedding and engagement rings for bananas and that kept her and her remaining two children alive. She always taught us this.

  11. There is coeliacs disease and FODMAPS, they are different but similar in some ways. I was involved in a companies' research to produce a coeliac safe alternative to wheat pasta. It's not easy to produce a product with the same mouth feel. It took years, and it it is more expensive than wheat pasta. Our gluten-free products are a minuscule part of our range, but we had one worker who was a coeliac. He is now deceased, but we manufacture the products in his honour. There are many other gluten-free products, rice and buckwheat come to mind. Coeliacs disease is no longer a death sentence, and it does not mean a boring diet. Do an internet search for gluten-free recipes. I am not a coeliac, but some coeliac recipes are just so damn good.

  12. I see many people commenting about how the fad dieters have made it easier for those of us with celiac because we now have more gluten free options to choose from. While that is true to an extent, the fad dieters also make it more difficult for us because people don’t want to take us seriously. Also, most restaurants that have gluten free options aren’t equipped to serve celiacs because they don’t have measures in place to prevent cross contamination, so those “gluten free” options are useless to us. There’s still a lot of progress that needs to be made for celiacs to be able to eat safely without fear of getting sick.

  13. My brother has celiac, crohn's disease, and is lactose intolerant. And that's just his stomach issues. He has a really rough time. My other brother has ulcerative crohn's and colitis. Thankfully I just have IBS. Still not fun, though. I hope it doesn't evolve, because things like that can show up at any point in your life.

  14. Celiac disease, properly diagnosed is one thing. Increasingly a number of people are seeking glutin free products to correct chronic ill health which doctors have failed to diagnose or treat. The world is now beset with COVID and perhaps as many as 30% of patients will have "long COVID" or will never fully recover. Some investigations into this "long COVID" suggest damage to intestines perpetuates long term illness.

    Prior to COVID being known, as a journalist researcher, I was trying to track and identify outbreaks of "unknown" "really tough" viruses that had caused long term morbidity in my area. Indeed, my friends and I wondered where regular colds, flu and "stomach flu" had gone. The only communicable diseases we have known for over a decade start like a simple cold but within 48 hours the digestive system, primarily the intestines are ravaged. Some are lucky to get over bloody diarrhea in 9 months, despite all diagnostic tests being negative. For some, intestinal symptoms plus neurological symptoms persist indefinitely. Some of these people are the ones finding some relief from glutin free diets.

    My point is, maybe the next step in understanding celiac disease will be in identifying viruses that set the disease process in motion. I would guess a lot of people have been partially damaged through viruses so that they have something like celiac disease, which defies diagnosis. It is hard to believe that when grain farming, especially wheat and rye, have been mainstays of human diet and survival for years, that a terrible condition like celiac would be evolutionarily sustainable.

  15. And now with gene sequences and knock out technology … we can induce pathologies to man’s best friend (lab rats or the famous Peromyscus maniculatus, we induced PKU and tyrosinase def to make them albinos ;)) now we know that it’s an autoimmune conditions stemming from HLA-DR2&8, with a classified type 4 hypersensitivity… if lest untreated can lead to fat vitamin malabsorption, and in allowed to chronically fester it can cause cancer in particular non Hodgkin lymphoma, T cell lymphoma, adenocarcinoma … but we can catch it with ELISA and WB, or the fancy immunohistochemestry …

  16. Now every person must have celiac. It is sadly become the new trending thing to have. The only good part is those with the disease for real, actual have tons of food options.

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