If you are like many people, you’re kind of ‘over’ the whole gluten topic. Conversations about said gluten elicit eye rolls and sighs… “Dude, I don’t have Celiac’s…I don’t care!” And you’re not alone. In casual survey I conducted of 32 women around the ages of 27-36, only 6 (about 19%) claimed they avoided gluten regularly, and the topic of gluten ranked the lowest out of 10 health-related topics I presented. I was half expecting this, yet it concerned me greatly. I hear this often—people think that because they don’t have Celiac’s Disease, they are in the clear and they don’t have to care about gluten. I’m hoping to clear up some information about gluten in this post and (hopefully) have you rethinking your gluten intake from here on out. The short answer is that gluten has proven to be extremely inflammatory and detrimental to our health, and not just for people that have Celiac’s.
Here are 10 Things You Need to Know About Gluten:
1. Gluten’s structure has changed dramatically throughout the years
Gluten is indeed a natural substance and is the protein component in wheat. Wheat itself, however, has only been around for about 16,000 years. That seems like a long time, but evolutionarily, that is a very short amount of time for our bodies to adapt to eating a certain food at every meal and snack. Then, only in the past 200 years has pure wheat flour been milled into refined white flour. Finally, and most importantly, over the past few decades, gluten has been significantly hybridized and deamidated. Dr. Datis Khrrazian, an expert in the field of Functional Medicine and Nutrition, describes how deamidation uses “acids or enzymes to make gluten water soluble so it mixes more easily with other foods” and hybridization creates a new protein by combining different strains of wheat, which can “alter a protein sequence by as much as 5%.” Both of these processes have made the wheat we eat much different from what our grandparents ate, or even different from what we ate as children, and have made it extremely inflammatory to us, thereby playing a big part in the ever increasing gluten sensitivities.
2. Gluten sensitivity is very common, and it’s on the rise
Research over the past decade points to the fact that a majority of people have some sensitivity to gluten. A breakthrough study published in Gastroenterology in 2009 actually identified a clear and dramatic rise in gluten sensitivity in the United States. Not only is the structure of gluten today different and hard to digest, causing immune responses, but people are just simply eating WAY more gluten and grain products than ever before. Everywhere we turn, we are being served bread, crackers, cookies, cereal, beer, not to mention gluten is being snuck into things like dressings, soup, sauces and seasonings—things that historically did not contain gluten. Finally, we are usually eating foods containing gluten with other pro-inflammatory crap like sugar and trans-fats, making it the perfect (shit)storm for our bodies.
3. Gluten has many components that cause reactions
Gluten is the protein component found in wheat and other grain products, and actually made up of 2 proteins: glutenins and gliadins. According to Dr. David Perlmutter, a renowned neurologist whose expertise includes gluten issues, brain health & nutrition, "a person may be sensitive to either of these proteins or to one of the 12 different smaller units that make up gliadin. Any of these could cause a sensitivity reaction leading to inflammation." So, different people have very different reactions to foods containing gluten, depending on what they may react to (more on that below).
4. Gluten causes inflammation (in almost everyone)
If the body lacks the right enzymes to digest a food or has immune response to the food, it is classified as food sensitivity. Gluten happens to cause both. It’s been found that no human being completely digests gluten, causing inflammation and immune responses in the body. Essentially, gluten interferes with the breakdown and absorption of food in our gut (in large part thanks to hybridization and deamidation I mentioned earlier). Dr. Perlmutter explains in his book, Grain Brain, that because the food is poorly digested, it leaves what the body considers a foreign, toxic residue in the gut, which alerts the immune system and ‘turns on’ inflammation in our bodies. Inflammation then leads to a whole host of other issues in our body, like leaky gut and autoimmune diseases. Other foods like sugar, trans fats (think fried food) and refined carbohydrates also cause inflammation—anything that our bodies see as a ‘toxin’—and are usually found in tandem to gluten-laden foods, exacerbating the problem.
5. Gluten probably affects you, even if you don’t have Celiac Disease
Very simply, how food sensitivities work is that if something inflames your gut enough, you can develop an intolerance to that food, then immune system issues, then autoimmunity. We now know that gluten causes some inflammation in mostpeople. What many people don’t know is that they can have food sensitivities without ‘feeling it’ in their tummies. See, Celiac Disease is an (extreme) case of autoimmunity caused by gluten, and it’s very recognizable because it so acutely and obviously affects a person’s digestive system—you eat the stuff, you feel bad—but this is likely after years of gluten deteriorating the body. So, as with any allergy or sensitivity, people can be found on a spectrum in regards to how and wherethey are affected by gluten. Researchers have now coined the term “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity” (NCGS), a diagnosis for those who do not have Celiac Disease, but feel a whole lot better when gluten is removed from their diet.
6. Gluten causes problems throughout our whole body
A sensitivity to gluten can cause an array of symptoms—symptoms that, sadly, many people just get used to. You may be 'used' to having low energy, anxiety, poor sleep, joint pain, eczema, thyroid issues, (and I could go on…). This is becauseinflammation and leaky gut caused by gluten are a catalyst for immune reactions and inflammation all over the body. It is well known now that inflammation and leaky gut are the root of so many diseases, such as cancer, Alzheimer’s, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high cholesterol, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, lupus and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. Simply put, the idea that gluten affects only the bowels is a huge misconception.
7. In fact, gluten is a neurological toxin
According to Dr. Hadjivassiliou, one of the most well-respected researchers in the area of gluten sensitivity and the brain, explains that people with gluten sensitivity can have all sorts of negative issues with brain function without having any gastrointestinal problems whatsoever. Dr. Kharrazian states that “no food is a more powerful trigger of neurological issues and autoimmunity than gluten” because the protein structure of gluten (gliadin) is similar to protein structures in the nervous system, so your own immune system may accidentally produce antibodies and attack your nervous tissue whenever you eat gluten. Dr. Rodney Ford of the Children's Gastroeneronolgy and Allergy Clinic in New Zealand said the fundamental problem with gluten is its "interference with the body's neural networks… Evidence points to the nervous system as the prime site of gluten damage and the implication of gluten causing neurologic network damage is immense." In fact, in recent studies, they also found gluten sensitivity linked to “the appearance of neuro-psychiatric disorders, such as autism, schizophrenia and depression.” The brain is more susceptible to inflammation, since it lacks many of the protective features of other areas of the body, and it’s just much harder to notice changes in brain function, and then correlate them to food sensitivities, which makes this a slippery slope. The short term impacts of a neurological issue with gluten could look like headaches, brain fog ADHD or poor memory. But future impacts—if you keep eating it and letting the problem worsen—could result in more severe diseases like Alzheimer’s. So, the bottom line is that, even if you feel fine immediately after eating gluten, that doesn’t mean it’s not wreaking havoc on your body and potentially causing other issues that you’ll have to deal with down the road.
8. Gluten is addictive
If you’ve read this far, thank you. I’m guessing by this point, though, you’re feeling sad, annoyed, angry, or some combination thereof. I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt pretty defensive of your beloved gluten, because it’s actually very addictive. Dr. Perlmutter explains that "gluten breaks down in the stomach to become a mix of polypeptides that can cross the blood-brain barrier. Once they gain entry, they can then bind to the brain's morphine receptor to produce a sensorial high. This is the same receptor to which opiate drugs bind, creating their pleasurable, albeit addicting, effect." (The same can be said for sugar). It even produces a withdrawal when we don't eat it and our bodies are used to the stuff. Aaaaaaaand that, ladies and gentlemen is one reason why it's in everything we eat. Food manufactures aren't stupid.
9. Gluten sensitivity is hard to uncover or test for
First of all, it’s really hard to tell if gluten is affecting you if it isn’t acutely affecting your gut. If you were constantly running to the bathroom with explosive diarrhea every time you ate a certain food, it would probably be easy to figure out what to eliminate. But, as I discussed earlier, much of gluten’s interference is throughout the body, mainly the brain and nervous system. That’s trickier territory to even notice, much less correlate to food. Since people’s symptoms can manifest in all sorts of ways, it often is never diagnosed or even explored as a culprit. We may think of food allergy or food sensitivity as breaking out in hives or a rash, or having severe gut pain, but again, this isn’t always the case.
The second issue is that gluten sensitivity is tricky to test for. A complete gluten antibody screen should include alpha gliadin, omega gliadin, gamma gliadin, deamidated gliadin, wheat germ agglutinin, gluteomorphin, prodynorphin, TG2, TG3, and TG6. However, most doctors/labs only run an isolated alpha gliadin test, so even if you got tested, you may not get accurate information.
Finally, our medical system just isn’t set up to check for food sensitivities as root causes for many of the disorders I mentioned above. Western doctors are trained instead to diagnose and prescribe the surficial symptoms. For example, if you were diagnosed with depression and bouts of IBS-like symptoms, you may be prescribed an anti-depressant and anti-diarrheals, but it’s unlikely that they’ll connect the dots (unless you get a great doctor!). In no way am I trying to bash doctors—thank God for them—I’m just pointing out that many doctors weren’t trained in nutrition which is why food isn’t addressed as root causes in our medical system.
10. The only sure-fired way to know if you are affected is to stop eating the shit
Unless you've been tested for a full array of gluten intolerances or given it up *completely* for at least a few months, you really can't be sure whether or not you have an issue with gluten. It’s actually really easy once you are aware of what things contain gluten and the plethora of healthy gluten-free options available now. Typically, just a couple weeks is not enough time to see full changes or improvements, so allow a minimum of 6-8 weeks before drawing any conclusions. However, it’s likely you’ll experience benefits in much less time. And remember, not all gluten-free things are healthy. After all, potato chips are gluten-free. So educate yourself on what you’re eating and do research on healthy swaps (more to come on some awesome recipes in future posts!). Your body (especially your 70-year-old self’s brain) will thank you!
If you’d like help reading food labels and would like to participate in a grocery store tour in the Milwaukee area, please let me know!