What is gluten?
Gluten is a general name used to describe proteins found in wheat and other cereal grains such as spelt and rye and to a lesser amount also in barley and oats. Any flour made from the starchy endosperm of grains contains proteins that are potentially problematic to the grain intolerant person. Gluten is a mixture of proteins classified into two groups, the prolamines and the glutelins. The prolamine, gliadin in wheat, seems to be a major problem in celiac disease. Gluten gives baking goods like bread or cakes and even pasta dough their elasticity and stretch. It is important to note that avoiding wheat is not the same as avoiding gluten (*1). It’s interesting that the name gluten is derived from Latin and means glue.
What is the difference between being sensitive to gluten and being a celiac?
Sufferers of celiac disease have an autoimmune reaction to gluten. If you are just gluten sensitive, there is no auto immune reaction.
If you have celiac disease, then ingesting gluten causes your immune system to attack the lining of your small intestine.
It may be hard to tell whether your reaction to gluten is due to intolerance or if you are truly celiac. Medical tests can help diagnose your condition. You will find more info here.
Symptoms of gluten intolerance include bloating, nausea, diarrhoea, skin rashes, anaemia, chronic constipation, depression, thyroid disorders etc. For a comprehensive list of symptoms check out this article by the medical university of Chicago.
Why are more people nowadays gluten intolerant?
There is no easy answer to this but here are some reasons:
Over-exposure – Most varieties of wheat used today are much higher in gluten than the traditional varieties grown just 50 years ago. Our western diet includes a lot of wheat flour, and it may be that the high gluten content of modern white flour is overloading our bread and many other foods with gluten. This means that our modern diet is over exposing us to gluten, which, over time, can cause an allergic reaction.
Natural plant chemicals – Some plants reproduce by being eaten by, for example, a bird or a grazing animal. Their seeds contain natural plant chemicals that are designed to survive the digestion process and then germinate when excreted on to the soil. Some people can cope with these chemicals with no problem, while others can’t. If some grains give you indigestion, try soaking them before eating to see if that will alleviate any potential symptoms. If this doesn’t alleviate your symptoms try cutting those grains out to see if you feel better.
Chemical pesticides – The active ingredient in the herbicide, Roundup®, is the most important causal factor in this epidemic. Fish exposed to glyphosate develop digestive problems that are reminiscent of celiac disease. Celiac disease is associated with imbalances in gut bacteria that can be fully explained by the known effects of glyphosate on gut bacteria. You will find more info on this here.
Change of gluten’s structure – We’re no longer eating the wheat that our parents ate. To have the drought-resistant, bug-resistant and faster-growing wheat that we have today, we’ve hybridized the grain. It’s estimated that five percent of the proteins found in hybridized wheat are new proteins that were not found in either of the original wheat plants. These “new proteins” are part of the problem that has led to increased systemic inflammation, widespread gluten intolerance and higher rates of celiac disease. Today’s wheat has also been deamidated, which allows it to be water soluble and capable of being mixed into virtually every kind of packaged food. This deamidation has been shown to produce a large immune response in many people. For more info click here.
How to determine if you’re gluten intolerant?
The single best way to determine if you are gluten intolerant is to take gluten out of your diet for at least 30 days, then reintroduce it. If you feel significantly better without gluten or feel worse when you reintroduce it, then gluten is likely a problem for you, even if your lab tests are negative. Lab testing for both is available as well. However, there are some problems with this testing. For more information regarding this click here.
How do I treat gluten intolerance or celiac disease?
Firstly, eliminate all gluten from your diet. Trace amounts of gluten from cross-contamination or medications can be enough to cause an immune reaction in your body. You need to check all labels, on food, medications, supplements and anything that you ingest.
What is the link between gluten, systemic inflammation and autoimmune disease?
Gluten can cause inflammation in the gut and consequently also in the body. This inflammation in the gut can also cause a ‘leaky gut’. You will find more info on this here. Unfortunately, the antibodies produced by the body as a reaction to gluten can often get confused and end up attacking other organs and systems, from the skin to the thyroid to the brain. Therefore, gluten intolerance is frequently paired with autoimmune conditions and that is why people with celiac disease are at risk of developing a second autoimmune disease. I would suggest that if you have an autoimmune disease you get tested for gluten sensitivity, and if you’re gluten intolerant, you should get screened for autoimmunity.
Tips for eating gluten free
Eating gluten free doesn’t mean eating grain free. There are a wide variety of gluten free healthy grains available that have been part of our human diet for thousands of years. Organic, whole and unprocessed grains have the highest nutritional value. It is important to buy organic grains to avoid any toxins from pesticides and fertilizers. Non-organic grains are not only sprayed when growing but also during storage.
A wheat and gluten-free diet can be low in fibre as many of the alternative flours are lower in fibre than whole grain varieties (see below). Higher fibre alternatives include:
• flours from buckwheat, chickpeas, rice bran, brown rice
• grains such as amaranth, barley, buckwheat, millet, brown rice, polenta, quinoa
• fruit and vegetables.
This blog post here will give you some ideas on how to start eating gluten free.
It’s interesting to note that oats are often tolerated by gluten sensitive people. Oats do not contain the irritating gluten gliadin found in wheat. However, oats do contain the protein avenin which can trigger a reaction in some celiacs. Several studies have confirmed that a moderate amount of oats – around 40-60g a day – are not harmful to some celiacs (who cannot tolerate any gluten at all), although highly reactive people are still advised to avoid them.
Are all gluten free products healthier?
Often, no. They’re still highly refined and processed foods that send blood sugars sky-high, without providing any real nutrients or fibre. For example, flours made from arrowroot, sago, tapioca, potatoes, soy, corn and white rice are gluten free starches that have been refined and only supply empty calories with no nutritional value. Products made by these (biscuits, bread, pasta etc.) are best left on the shelves or only have these occasionally as a treat. You can get better nutrient-dense sources of carbohydrates such as potatoes (with skin), kumara, pumpkin, beetroot, carrots, parsnip, turnip and the grains and flours mentioned above.
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The advice written in this blog post is not intended to be a substitute for direct, personalized advice from a health professional.
Note: (*1) It is important to note that avoiding wheat is not the same as avoiding gluten. Gluten is a protein found mainly in wheat, barley, oats, triticale, spelt and rye. This means that wheat products labelled ‘wheat-free’ are not necessarily gluten-free, but products labelled ‘gluten-free’ are often wheat-free. There are, however, some ingredients derived from wheat (e.g. wheat glucose syrup, wheat maltodextrin) that contain no detectable gluten but still might contain other wheat proteins, so they are not suitable for a wheat-free diet.