What is gluten?
Gluten is a type of prolamin found in wheat, barley and rye. Wait, gluten isn’t a nutrient? Nope. In fact, our bodies don’t produce proper enzymes to fully break down gluten, no matter how healthy the body.
Ok, so, I just avoid wheat, barley and rye and I’m good? I wish! Remember the big food industry? Gluten is used in many food processing methods and is often found hidden or not-so-hidden in many types of food. Flours, bran, brewer’s yeast, condiments, french fries, gravies, lunch meats, soy sauce, salad dressings, processed cereals, marinades, sauces, spice mixes, chicken nuggets and soy sauce commonly contain gluten. Sure we can stay away from these food items and more with hidden sources of gluten, but there’s a second category of foods that are noted as cross-reactors for those who experience negative symptoms related to gluten consumption.
Generally speaking, as a body responds negatively to gluten, it produces antibodies to recognize and destroy the invader. These antibodies can recognize similar structures in the following foods, developing a sensitivity to these gluten cross-reactors: brewers/baker’s/nutritional yeast, corn, dairy proteins, instant coffee, oats, millet, potatoes, rice, sorghum. Does everyone need to avoid cross-reacting foods? Nope.
For a long season, I needed to, as my body exhibited the same digestive and joint pain symptoms when I ate corn or potatoes just the same as when I ate gluten. Where there are negative responses to ingesting gluten, there is damage and inflammation. Once that is able to heal, the gut can restore and those cross-reactions can recede for most.
Why is gluten a problem? And for who?
Well first, let’s look at why gluten is a problem. Gluten is a protein in wheat that is very tricky at getting across the gut barrier and into parts of the body where it shouldn’t be found.
We know prolamins (gluten = prolamin) to be a gut irritant as they cannot be fully broken down by digestive enzymes, leaving undigested pieces in your gut. And since the purpose of your gut is to let nutrients through the walls, so that they can make it to your cells and organs for nourishment, we don’t want undigested food there - only nutrients fully digested and ready to be assimilated into the cells of tissues and organs. When the prolamins reach the intestines - undigested - they are able to cross the gut barrier. Gluten can get through your gut wall in two ways: paracellular or through the cells that live in the gut or transcellular or through the cells that line the gut. This sneaking through both damages the gut barrier and starts inflammation so that healing can take place. Thus, gluten causes leaky gut.
Who does this cause a problem for? There are two obvious categories: celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity(NCGS). Celiac disease features a genetic component and any contact with gluten will cause the small intestine to inflame and be damaged, leading to malabsorption of other nutrients. Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity is relatively new to the scene, if found in a person exhibiting the same physical symptoms as celiac, but they do not have the genetic marker or a wheat allergy and they may or may not produce antibodies to gluten. Typical digestive responses would be stomach cramping, diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas and other symptoms including fatigue, anemia, depression and weight loss.
But wait, there’s more. Aside from not being a nutrient, there are more problems with gluten. It’s linked to over 50 diseases. Does this mean it causes disease. Maybe? Each person is an individual which means that each of our disease states are a big heap of different contributors.
For me, my NGCS seemed to contribute to my anemia, malnourishment, tingling extremities, skin rashes, IBS symptoms and auto-immune diseases.
A key issue is gluten depleting nutrients our bodies need to function when the body expends energy to digest and mount a response to an indigestible food. If the body is having an immune response, that’s more nutrients headed to fuel our immune system and damage to the intestines that will give way to inflammation.
Gluten also causes brain inflammation as it affects the gut-brain connection. Inflammation that begins in the gut will grow each time we consume gluten resulting in eventual systemic inflammation. When systemic inflammation reaches the brain you have neuroinflammation which leads to your brain dysfunction, cognitive impairment and increased risk for neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimers. You may be having intestinal symptoms of gluten intolerance which can appear as behavioral or psychiatric disorders. Brain inflammation is associated with bipolar, anxiety and depression, schizophrenia & ADHD. Do you suffer from one of these mental health issues? Test elimination - NCGS may be a key to your healing up brain inflammation and improving mental health.
Autism may also be affected by gluten. Research has shown that while gluten is not a cause of autism, it plays a part in the gut-brain disruption portion of autism. Children with autism have been found with increased levels of antibodies to the prolamin, gladian. Further it’s hypothesized that the peptides formed when gluten isn’t completely broken down may leak across the blood-brain barrier causing impaired neurotransmission and thus alterations in typical behavior.
Neuroinflammation, gut inflammation, systemic inflammation, why’s it matter? Over time inflammation in these regions leads to disease states including IBS/IBD, chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia and autoimmune disease. When gluten is leaking into the body your immune system responds. Each time your body experiences an invader in the body whether it’s a virus, a cut or these gluten pieces, it responds naturally with inflammation to fight off the invasion. Think about how your scraped knee doesn’t just bleed, it turns red and swells a bit. Good body. And confused body.
Did you know that eating gluten increases the risk autoimmune disease developing?
With all autoimmune disease, somewhere along the way your body developed a pattern of attacking its own tissues. Molecular mimicry. Gluten is a larger protein that resembles tissues in the body, primarily the thyroid tissue. When your body detects this gluten invader, antibodies are sent out to destroy the invader, but since gluten and the thyroid gland tissue look so similar, some of those immune cells attack the thyroid by mistake. In those with autoimmune thyroid disease, this happens each time they eat gluten and thus the thyroid is continually destroyed. Thyroid disease? Try elimination.
So you’re telling me that eating gluten is all of a sudden a big no-no, but my granny raised my Mom on bread at every meal and Jesus broke it with everyone and was just fine?
Unfortunately, yes. And for some of us with digestive response we can indulge in Europe with no consequence. Some contributors to this shift are the use of GMO’s in America. We also spray our wheat with glyphosate to end the growing process, just before harvest. Think about that - no one is out washing pesticides off your wheat that just dried in a field before it’s processed to your plate. We know that glyphosate affects our microbiome. Perhaps the biggest shift in gluten consumption and its effects is the way we prepare our gluten. Breadmaking processes of old were an overnight process of allowing the bread to ferment. During this time, the bread has its own growing enzymes that feed on and break down the gluten molecules during the fermentation process. Quick yeasts and methods remove our need to ferment, sending the original gluten into our bodies.
What can I do if I suspect gluten may not be for me?
First things first, proud of you for seeing a connection! It’s a simple switch - and not necessarily a switch forever. Commit to 4-6 weeks of no-gluten. Write down a list of all your current health pains and annoyances and tuck it away. Eliminate all gluten foods from your diet.
Remember that gluten isn’t a nutrient, so replace it with vegetables, fruits and meats and you’ll be piling on the nutrients - providing the body with the nourishment it needs AND removing a stressor. When we replace gluten with sugar laden, processed foods, we’re replacing one problem with another.
6 weeks is not forever, it’s not even as long as it takes to grow a baby or as long as summer break. Remove all gluten from your diet for 4-6 weeks. At the three week mark take note of how you feel on paper. Compare it to your previous list. Seeing improvement? Go the next 3 weeks. At this point you might feel so great, you don’t want to turn back. Or perhaps it’s not really made much of a shift. Try to reintroduce. Have one meal with a gluten-spotlight food. Take note of your emotional health, physical symptoms and anything else that you notice shifts. Still feeling great? Try a day with 3 meals with a gluten-spotlight. Take note of your symptoms and feels. Everything from energy levels to bowel movements, skin and acne to attention span.
Did you go gluten free and see a change? You’ve got some damage that needs healing. You may be able to rest your digestive tract and see healing or you may need to work with a practitioner to target the damage with nutrients. But either way, you’ve gifted yourself knowledge of the way your body responds and what it needs. High five!
Another high five if you made it to the end of this article. Next up, we’ll take a look at why removing dairy from your diet can make a shift for your health. And if you find out either gluten or dairy and your body don’t mix, you’ll be able to download a giant gluten and dairy-free snack list to make life a little easier…because no more wedding cake snacks for this wedding photographer turned holistic nutritionist.
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