Gluten-free. You see it all over. “Gluten-free diets.” “Gluten-free” restaurant dishes. Even “gluten-free pizza.” You can’t miss the gluten-free craze. But what’s it all about? Does it really make sense to give up wheat, the so-called “staff of life,” when the phrase “our daily bread” is synonymous with food? Whole grains… they’re universally recognized as a nutritious and essential part of a healthy diet… aren’t they? Unless you are actually allergic to gluten – if you have celiac disease, for example – then why would you ever want to cut out wheat? Bread, pasta, pizza, bagels, rolls, pastries, cake, pancakes – we eat them all the time. Most of us love our sandwiches and pasta. Who, besides a tiny minority of the population, would ever benefit from restricting those beloved grain-based carbs?
Actually, it’s not only those with celiac disease that need to take a hard look at gluten. It’s all of us.
The truth is that if you are human, you cannot completely digest gluten. Gluten is nutritionally useless. What’s more, gluten can have such adverse effects on the body that just about everyone needs to consider restricting, if not eliminating, gluten in their diet.
The fact is that humans didn’t evolve to be able to digest grain. Our ancestors were omnivores. We ate plants and meat. We foraged for roots and tubers, wild nuts, seeds, berries, fruit, and other plants. Meat was, at first, a welcome and occasional lucky addition. As we evolved, we learned use our brains to make up for our lack of fangs and claws. We grew into successful hunters, although plants were always the bulk of our diet. This is how we evolved to eat.
So, isn’t wheat a plant?
Wheat is not a naturally-occurring plant. With the advent of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, we basically invented wheat and other grains – our first attempt at genetic engineering. We wanted plants that could grow quickly, be hardy, and could be cultivated. But we couldn’t just eat grains as they were. They had to be made into something we could eat. We developed wheat, rye, oats and barley – plants with the gluten protein, alpha gliadin; then we invented bread and beer.
What we didn’t realize is that we actually lack the enzymes necessary to completely digest the proteins in gluten. Dr. Tom O’Bryan describes it well – think of the gluten like a pearl necklace. In order to digest the protein, we need to break it down into individual pearls (peptides and then amino acids) so they can be properly digested. Our bodies can’t do this. Of course, these grains have been part of our diet for millennia. But as agriculture has gotten more sophisticated, we’ve continued to develop and modify these grains, to the point where they actually do us more harm than good.
You see, although those earliest grains certainly had gluten, modern grains are very different. The amount of gluten in common grains has increased over time, until today, the grains we eat have twice as much gluten as those early strains.
I want to make an important note here: ALL GRAINS HAVE GLUTEN PROTEINS. Yes, all grains- this includes rice, corn, millet, sorghum, teff, etc. All seeds of plants contain gluten proteins. Wheat, barley, rye and oats have alpha gliadin (this is, currently, the only gluten that is labeled “gluten-free”); corn has zein; rice has orzenin: millet has panicin (millet), and so on. I am not going to go into detail about this here, but I wanted to mention it for those who have excluded gluten, but not all grains, from their diet and are still suffering from inflammation, pain, and other undesirable symptoms. If you want to learn more about this, I highly recommend heading over to Dr. Peter Osborne’s Gluten Free Society website.
Why does this matter?
Although the number of people who absolutely cannot tolerate gluten is relatively small – those with celiac disease – many people have adverse effects to gluten that they may not be aware of. This is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity or NCGS. Many people discover, through trial and error, like an elimination diet, that gluten causes them to feel bloated, groggy, or makes them gain weight. But there’s more to it than just feeling “off.”
Gluten is actually toxic to the body.
That’s right. Toxic. To understand how, we have to understand what happens when we ingest gluten.
Gluten is an inflammatory food. It disrupts the digestive system, disturbs the helpful gut bacteria that keeps us heathy, and interferes with the body’s natural barrier system against infections.
Let’s step back for a minute, and understand about gut health and inflammation.
Your health is dependent upon four factors: your genes, your environment (this includes toxins, chemicals, and food), the makeup of your gut microbiome, and the integrity of your intestinal lining (gut permeability). Of these, you may believe that you have no control over your genes. While it is true you are born with the genes you will have for life, whether they are “turned on” or expressed is a different story. This is known as epigenetics. In short, this means we don’t have to be victim of our heredity. Our daily thoughts, diet and lifestyle choices can shape and direct your genetic expression. A far as the other three factors, you’re absolutely in of control of those as well.
We all know that eating a well-balanced, nutritional diet helps keep us healthy. But many of us don’t understand that it is not necessarily what we eat, but what we digest and what nutrients our cells can use that matters. It all starts in the digestive system – our stomach and, importantly, our intestines. Our gut.
Your gut is where your environment, your diet and, ultimately, your health meet.
A healthy gut does a lot more than digest food and pass on waste. A healthy gut is teaming with beneficial bacteria, collectively called the microbiome or microbiota. These helpful agents fight against infections, drive out the bad bacteria and keep the microbiome in balance. In order to thrive, they need an ideal environment to live in. Think of a lush rainforest that is a naturally recycling environment, where the good bacteria are flourishing.
When we don’t consume the right kinds of food – and when we eat too much of the wrong kind – this delicate ecosystem is strained, and often broken. Without those helpful agents, we are more prone to sickness, disease and major health consequences.
A healthy gut provides a tightly-controlled barrier, allowing nutrients derived from food to enter the bloodstream, then the cells, nourishing our body so it can grow, heal and thrive. It allows nutrients to pass through, but it keeps the “bad guys,” like infectious agents and large, unbroken food particles, from entering. However, this is not the case in a gut with increased intestinal permeability. Certain foods (like gluten), environmental toxins, antibiotics, over-the-counter pain medicines, and stress can create a condition called leaky gut, which over time leads to chronic inflammation and ultimately, autoimmune diseases.
Leaky gut occurs when some or all of the five major intestinal barriers are compromised. These barriers include the tight gap junctions, GALT (gut-associated lymphoid tissue), the secretory IgA mucosa, stomach acid, and gut microbiome. A leaky, or permeable gut allows inflammation to travel to the rest of our body where it can, over time, cause chronic inflammation. Chronic inflammation will attack where your body is the weakest, most vulnerable. It can cause damage to the tissues, joints, skin, and even organs. Now, this doesn’t affect everyone the same way. Your genes may make you predisposed to certain conditions. Your environment may expose you to germs. But normally, your gut can prevent you from getting sick from that exposure, because it creates a formidable barrier. But with less-than-optimal gut heath, the barrier is weak.
Let’s take a look at an example of how your gut barrier can be compromised. Zonulin is a protein molecule that regulates intestinal permeability. New research has linked an overproduction of zonulin to the development of a series of autoimmune diseases, including type 1 diabetes, celiac disease and multiple sclerosis. And guess what’s a prime activator of zonulin? That’s right – gluten. (Or, more specifically, alpha gliadin, a component of gluten, a so-called glycoprotein present in wheat.)
High levels of zonulin, primarily because of the presence of gluten, can lead to celiac that is frequently asymptomatic for a long time. Because it can go unrecognized for many years, it can cause serious damage to internal organs. Undiagnosed and untreated, it may (depending upon genetic predisposition and environmental factors) cause malabsorption, reduced quality of life, iron deficiency, osteoporosis, an increased risk of intestinal lymphomas and a general risk of greater mortality. It is associated with some autoimmune diseases, such as diabetes, thyroiditis, psoriasis, vitiligo, autoimmune hepatitis, and more.
But as I mentioned before, gluten doesn’t just cause problems for people with celiac. Many people without celiac disease have trouble with gluten. They may experience headaches, a foggy mind, chronic fatigue, depression, abdominal pain, eczema, joint pain or other chronic pain.
If you notice these symptoms, and they interfere with your daily life, the important thing is to find out why. First, of course, you can get tested for celiac disease. But often, standard testing only measures a few of the hundreds of different forms of gluten that exist, and these tests have a high rate of false negatives. Also, the way tests measure for celiac means that it may be present for years before the conditions are right for it to register. In addition, many people without classic celiac disease are gluten sensitive or gluten intolerant, separate but very real conditions which may affect up to 30% of the population.
Along with your celiac test, you should also get a complete physical workup, to rule out any possibility of other diseases or conditions. But if everything checks out fine and you’re still not feeling quite right, why not try a gluten-free diet?
I believe that most people would benefit from restricting or eliminating gluten from their lives. And it’s not as hard as you might think! There are many delicious alternatives to gluten-rich foods that are not only healthier, but just as satisfying. Once you learn to start filling your plate with a wide variety of fruits, vegetables, healthy fats and grass-fed, pastured-raised meats, and nuts and seeds, you’ll find that you don’t miss bread and pasta at all. Nut, seed, and cassava flours make delicious alternatives for true gluten-free baking and recipes.
It is important to understand that it takes a while for all the gluten to completely leave your system so you will need to give it ample time. As Dr. Osborne explains, “the half-life for gluten antibodies is typically 3-4 months, thus is would take at least that long for gluten to be purged from the body.” This also depends on other factors, such as the overall health of the individual, the presence of tiny amounts of gluten in the diet (even small amounts can produce gluten antibodies and inflammation), and dehydration (causes reduced detoxification capabilities and elimination of gluten). So, be patient and enjoy the process of restoring your body back to health. You might just be surprised to find out HOW much better you feel without gluten in your life. Most people discover that they have more energy, less bloat and digestive issues, and better brain function.
If you’re not sure how to get started on a gluten-free lifestyle, I am here to help! I work personally with my clients, and guide them through a proper elimination diet to help them discover how to create an ideal diet for their body and its needs. To get started, sign up for your free health evaluation. If you are a self-starter and don’t need one-on-one consulting, get a copy of my book, glow by Jenni Houston and get started going gluten-free today!