You’ve no doubt heard about the gluten free phenomenon sweeping the western world. There actually a very good reason why so many people are choosing to adopt a gluten free diet. It isn’t as simple as you have Coeliac disease or even gluten intolerance. There are many reasons why I would you encourage to limit or eliminate gluten in your diet.
What actually is gluten?
Gluten is the dominant protein found (around 80%) found in:
• Trace amounts in oats and corn
And thanks to modern day processing just about everything else from sauces and syrups to beauty products.
Gluten acts as an adhesive material that holds flour together to make bready, doughy products hence its name which is latin for ‘glue.’ It is made up of two groups of proteins: glutenins and gliadins. People may be allergic or sensitive to one or both of these compounds. Additionally, many of us lack the right enzymes to properly digest gluten.
When not digested properly gluten leaves a residue in your digestive system that prompts your immune system to attack it leading to intestinal permeability (we learned why this is a problem here). This can reduce the ability of your system to absorb nutrients, because this is where important vitamins and minerals actually enter your system. Once the wall of the digestive system is compromised it becomes ‘leaky’, hence the term ‘leaky gut syndrome.’
You don’t have to be diagnosed with full-blown coeliac disease to have issues with gluten. In fact there is a full spectrum of conditions ranging from coeliac to Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. Gluten free is often seen as a fad but the real problem is the multi-million dollar gluten free industry. I am not here to tell you to cut out all gluten and replace it with gluten free bread, cake and pasta. I believe that all grains, including those that are gluten free represent a problem for our digestion.
Gluten free and grain free eating is not a fad. Science supports the need for an understanding of the impacts of gluten intolerance and for vigilance with our eating.
Pronounced “ceeli-yak”, coeliac is an autoimmune disease, which is an inflammatory response to gluten and the damage that gluten does to the small intestine. This means that when are coeliac eats some gluten (no matter how small the amount) their body will launch a full scale attack on the particles. When the gut is leaky and undigested gluten particles can pass through into your body they can combine with your body’s own tissues, which then become the subject of your immune system’s attack.
A coeliac’s body attacks their body’s cells when they bind to gluten particles. Coeliac disease is not just a digestive disease, nor is it characterised by digestive symptoms. While bloating, diarrhoea and abdominal pain are common symptoms due to the undigested gluten in your digestive tract, it can also manifest in many other ways. Many people are diagnosed with coeliac disease after complaints of fatigue, migraines, joint pain, skin problems and even weight loss as a result of malnutrition.
As an autoimmune disease coeliac can affect any organ and tissue in the body including the liver, blood vessels, our hormones and more. In Grain Brain Dr Perlmutter links gluten sensitivity to reduced brain function. Coeliac disease is associated with a number of very serious conditions such as MS, thyroid disease, osteoporosis, depression, ADHD, arthritis and many more.
Dr Perlmutter explains that once anti-bodies are raised in response to the gliadin component of gluten in the system and this results in inflammatory cascade that releases damaging chemicals called cytokines. Cytokines can be very damaging to the brain and cause significant dysfunction and disease. Another problem is that anti-gliadin antibodies sometimes can’t tell the difference between that protein and specific proteins that occur in the brain and look like the gliadin protein found in gluten.
The main point here is that Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease with serious complications that go far beyond digestive troubles.
Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)
There are many variations of gluten intolerance and NGCS is the name used to refer to those suffering from a more general ‘sensitivity’ to gluten. This is where you may experience many of the symptoms associated with coeliac disease, but without producing the antibodies. Just because this isn’t a full-blown coeliac, doesn’t mean it isn’t a diagnosis to take seriously. In fact Chris Kresser has suggested that NCGS could be more of an issue because of complacency in the medical community and often failure to diagnose it. For a lot of people it just goes unnoticed while the patient suffers from various symptoms.
Some symptoms that can result from NCGS include:
- IBS like symptoms
- Joint and muscle pains
- Skin issues
- And many more.
There are also many links between neurological disorders and gluten sensitivity. I highly recommend reading Grain Brain for more detail. On page 53 Dr Perlmutter quotes Dr Hadjivassiliou, “gluten sensitivity can be primarily, and at times, exclusively a neurological disease.”
We can certainly have issues with gluten, without any obvious digestive symptoms.
For those without signs of any gluten sensitivity…
Finally, gluten-containing products are often the doughy, starchy refined things that we can do without. Think that you wouldn’t survive? That’s probably partly to do with the fact that gluten can mimic morphine in the brain. In Wheat Belly, Dr William Davis describes how gluten is broken down into a mix of polypeptides in the stomach, which then bind to the brain’s morphine receptor to produce a bit of a high! Woo! It’s the same receptors that opioid drugs bind to, making them pleasurable and addictive!
Unfortunately this can result in a bit of a withdrawal, but you will survive and ultimately do a lot for your health. Even if you feel wonderful all the time, in reality we do NOT need gluten in our diets. If you’re not convinced about the benefit of real, whole foods over empty sources of calories, read some more here.
What would be the harm in giving gluten a break for a while? At the worst you will miss out on bread and cake for a period. At best you could discover that symptoms you didn’t know you had (minor bloating, occasional headaches, a bit of skin irritation, some joint pain) disappear.