What is Gluten?
Most people associate gluten with wheat, but gluten and wheat are not the same thing. Gluten is a protein composite (made up of more than one protein), found not only in wheat but also in other grains like rye, spelt, and barley, as well as the products made from these grains. These products include breads, rolls, crackers, baked goods, and pizza dough, where the gluten acts like a ‘glue’ to hold the flour together. It is also found in many personal care items such as cosmetics, shampoos, and lipsticks.
Although eating gluten-free is becoming more popular and mainstream, there is a lot of confusion about why, and what it means.
What is Gluten Sensitivity?
Gluten sensitivity is a widespread immune system reaction to gluten that can affect any organ system in the body and cause various physical and psychological symptoms. You may be familiar with celiac disease, a lifelong autoimmune disease that is characterized by severe reactions to gluten that eventually cause damage to the small intestine. Individuals who have extreme gastrointestinal reactions almost immediately after eating gluten may be given a blood test for celiac disease, and if positive, will be instructed to permanently remove gluten from their diets.
Many people test negative for celiac disease but still have reactions to gluten that resolve on a gluten-free diet. The term non-celiac gluten sensitivity has emerged to describe this condition .
The symptoms of gluten sensitivity are extremely varied and can include gastrointestinal symptoms (diarrhea, constipation, bloating, excess gas, abdominal pain), brain fog, fatigue, skin issues, respiratory problems, and weight loss resistance. Any system in the body can show symptoms of gluten sensitivity.
Has Wheat Changed?
Yes. Remember at the end of the movie Gladiator, when Russell Crowe is walking through the wheat fields with outstretched arms? Wheat fields back then were three to four feet tall and contained very low levels of gluten.
But since that time, wheat itself has changed. It started with processing and refining techniques allowing for the low-cost production of large quantities of the grain. The preparation of flour changed overtime to become more efficient, more cost-effective, and less nutritious.
The most crucial change came in the early 1960s with the advent of “high-yield dwarf wheat”, a genetically modified kind of wheat that has an extremely high gluten content compared to the wheat of the past.
As the gluten content of wheat has changed, the prevalence of chronic illness has increased. We have seen a 150% increase in autism prevalence since the year 2000 , we’ve seen nearly doubled diabetes rates in America in the last 20 years , a dramatic increase in depression over the last 50 years, and we have a worldwide chronic disease prevalence that is expected to reach 57% by the year 2020 . There are many factors at play to have caused such an increase in these disease processes, but gluten intolerance is surely one major contributing factor.
Inflammation and Leaky Gut
In order to understand why gluten is a problem for so many of us, it is important to understand the connection between gluten, inflammation and leaky gut.
Gluten-containing foods cause an inflammatory reaction and increased levels of a protein called zonulin. As zonulin rises, the tight junctions between intestinal cells opens up creating a gap between them. Think of a row of bricks (cells) lined up next to each other and the mortar holding them together is now gone (the gap). This is commonly referred to as intestinal permeability, or leaky gut. (5)
Once you have a leaky gut, your problems become exponentially worse. Along with viruses, toxins, and pathogenic bacteria, gluten is now capable of getting through your gut’s barrier and into your bloodstream. This bombardment of ‘foreign invaders’ into our blood causes the immune system to become over-activated and inflammation ensues. It can also allow food sensitivities to develop to new foods that are getting through the barrier, especially cross-reactive foods whose protein structures are similar to gluten. I test patients for sensitivities to more than 20 gluten cross-reactive foods with the Cyrex Array 4. Worst yet, the immune system can get so overwhelmed that it gets confused and starts attacking your own tissue. Now you have an autoimmune disease like Lupus, Multiple Sclerosis, or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.
Gluten and the Brain
It is important to note that individuals with gluten sensitivity-- and even celiac disease-- do not always experience gastrointestinal symptoms. In fact, research shows that gluten sensitivity can manifest in a purely neurological way (6). Brain fog, trouble focusing decreased memory function, certain mood disorders, neurological conditions and neurodevelopmental disorders have all been linked to gluten.
Many parents of children with autism, ADD, and ADHD see an incredible improvement in behavioral and physiological symptoms when gluten is removed from the diet. I tell parents to be patient with seeing results. Sometimes it can take up to three months to see positive changes. Even in kids without these diagnoses, the damage that gluten may cause to a developing brain is a risk that is not worth taking. That is why I recommend that gluten be avoided in every child’s diet.
What We Can Do
It’s clear that gluten is creating widespread health problems in our modern world. In my practice, all patients are tested for markers relating to celiac disease as well as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. An elimination diet in which gluten is removed from the diet is a must. Many who try this are surprised to find that a whole host of symptoms clear up when gluten is removed.
The fact is that none of us are equipped to properly digest gluten. Given its ability to damage the lining of the gut, cause chronic inflammation in the body and the brain, and lead to autoimmune diseases, mood disorders, and debilitating chronic conditions, I encourage everyone to remove gluten from their diets. It just may change your life.
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