What is all the hype about gluten? Have you been wondering if you should start eating gluten-free? If you find that you have unexplainable health problems or multiple food sensitivities, you need to read this. More often than not, a person who is gluten-sensitive has seen an endless line of doctors with few results.
This two-part blog post will discuss the why’s and how’s of “going gluten-free.” In this article, I will discuss gluten in detail, explaining the various ways gluten can affect your health and well being. In Part 2, I will explain the steps to take as you remove gluten (and other culprit foods) from your diet. You will learn the many places that gluten can hide and be given suggested food replacements and menu ideas. Most people feel better when they remove gluten from their diet. However, if you are dealing with health issues, eating a gluten-free diet will accelerate the healing process. Removing gluten especially helps with digestive issues, allergies, brain-related issues, and autoimmune diseases, but there is so much more.
Gluten-Related Health Problems
Many celiac and gluten-literate doctors believe that gluten-sensitivity is more widespread than we realize. Some, like Dr. Alessio Fasano who is one of the leading gluten-sensitivity researchers, believe that ALL humans have a problem digesting gluten. It just shows up differently in different people.
Until more recently, gluten was mostly associated with Celiac Disease, which directly affects the small intestine. A person with Celiac Disease has very specific symptoms that occur if they eat any hint of gluten. They are considered gluten intolerant. Now, doctors are starting to agree that there are actually quite a few health issues that can occur because of gluten. This is called being gluten sensitive, where the reaction is more delayed. (In the past, it was thought that Celiac disease was genetic, but now it is believed that it can also start with gluten sensitivity that goes unchecked.)
What is becoming more recognized is how gluten contributes to a wide variety of autoimmune diseases. This includes autoimmune thyroid diseases (Grave’s and Hashimoto’s), Rheumatoid Arthritis, Type 1 Diabetes, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), Chronic Fatigue, and Fibromyalgia, just to name a few. (There are over 140 autoimmune diseases!) It can affect any area of the body. Even cardiologist, Dr. Mark Houston in Nashville, TN, believes gluten sensitivity plays a factor in a number of cardiovascular illnesses.
Gluten can also be a factor in many other health issues, some of which you might not expect. Many examples are listed below. If you have an autoimmune disease or recognize yourself in some of the listed symptoms, you may want to consider removing gluten from your diet, even for a few weeks, to see if there is improvement. . . More about that in a minute.
- Gas and bloating
- Stomach or intestinal pain
- Acid-reflux or heartburn (gluten can damage the acid-producing cells of the stomach)
- Constipation and/or diarrhea
- Anemia (iron, folic acid, or B-12 deficiency)
- Joint pain
- Brain fog and dementia
- Migraine headaches
- Bone loss (including osteopenia and osteoporosis)
- Unexplained bouts of dizziness or ear ringing
- Skin rashes (including dermatitis herpetiformis, eczema, and psoriasis)
- Unexplained infertility
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Dental cavities and/or crooked teeth
- A child’s failure to thrive or shortened stature
- ADD, ADHD, and Autism
- Bipolar disorder and Schizophrenia
Dr. Rodney Ford, a gluten-free pediatrician in New Zealand, started finding gluten sensitivities in children 20 years ago, especially in children with allergies. Other common symptoms he now correlates in children who are sensitive to gluten include eczema and skin rashes, constipation and/or diarrhea, acid reflux, recurring tummy aches, vomiting, migraines and other headaches, and chronic hives. He also includes the sickly child who is often tired and grumpy.
It is also important to note that gluten sensitivities often occur generationally. If you are gluten sensitive it is likely that one of your parents are/were gluten sensitive and/or that one or more of your children are (or will be) gluten sensitive. You can often look at your extended family and see similarities in illnesses and health issues.
What is Gluten?
Before getting into the details of how gluten affects the body, let’s look at where gluten can be found. It is not always clear. For example, gluten intolerance and gluten sensitivity typically refer to the affects of wheat gluten. But, did you know that all grains have gluten?
Since the gluten in some grains is more similar to wheat gluten, there are certain grains that are typically eliminated in a gluten-free diet. The most common gluten-containing grains that must be eliminated are wheat (including typical white bread), barley (including malt), rye, and other wheat-based grains such as spelt, durum, semolina, kamut, and einkorn. Couscous, bulgur, and brewer’s yeast are included too.
Grains that are typically considered gluten-free include rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, and amaranth. However, people who are more sensitive might also be sensitive to the gluten in some of these and may need to consider going grain-free. (More on that in Part 2.)
Oats, corn, and soy are also usually considered gluten-free but there are other concerns to be considered. For example, oats are often “cross-contaminated” because they are typically processed in the same facility as wheat. You can get oats that are labeled “gluten-free” (meaning they are not tainted by wheat gluten), but the oat gluten could still be a problem for some people.
Corn and soy, on the other hand, contain proteins that are very similar to gluten. The protein in soy, for instance, is digested by the same enzyme as wheat gluten. In addition, both corn and soy are typically genetically modified (GM) or GM-tainted. The Bt-toxin and abundant pesticides contained in GM foods can present very similar symptoms to wheat gluten when eaten. (See previous post on GMOs for more information. To be healthy, all GMOs should really be removed from everyone’s diet, not only when converting to a gluten-free diet.)
How Gluten Affects Your Body
From the many symptoms listed earlier, you can see that gluten does not only cause digestive problems. Gluten (and the other culprit foods) can cause problems in other parts of the body, including the brain.
Gluten creates an over production of “zonulin” in the gut. Zonulin helps to anchor the cells in the intestinal lining so they are held close together. However, when gluten is eaten and zonulin production becomes elevated it causes the cells to spread apart, creating what is called intestinal permeability or “leaky gut.” This, in turn, allows more proteins (food particles) to travel through the gut wall into the blood stream, where they are not supposed to be. The immune system sees these protein as enemies and attempts to fight them off.
If this occurs in a healthy person, the immune cells can attack these foreign bodies and be done with it. However, if your health is compromised and your immune system is already overworked, the immune cells can start attacking other parts of the body too. This will also occur if you are eating so many gluten-containing foods (including corn, soy, and GMOs) that it becomes too much for your body to handle. Other health issues start to come about.
In some cases (such as Celiac Disease), the collateral damage occurs in the small intestine where “villous atrophy” occurs. The villi are small hair-like tentacles that line the intestinal wall and help absorb nutrients during digestion. When these become damaged, malabsorption of nutrients occurs, resulting in deficiencies of vitamins, minerals, etc.
When the immune cells start attacking other parts of the body, it can cause inflammation and can ultimately lead to an autoimmune disease. The resulting symptoms and where they occur in the body will depend on the person and their inherent weaknesses. For example, the resulting inflammation may occur in the joints, causing joint pain, the nerves, causing nerve damage, and the skin, causing skin issues.
Zonulin also controls the blood-brain barrier permeability. That is why gluten sensitivity can cause brain-related symptoms such as “brain fog” and dementia. Some experts believe that gluten directly affects the nerves in the gut more than the intestinal lining, causing gluten-induced neuropathy such as ataxia, vertigo, tremors, bi-polar, and schizophrenia.
Addiction to Gluten (and Dairy)
Digestion problems and inflammation inside the body resulting from gluten sensitivity do not always show up as obvious health issues right away. If gluten sensitivity is not addressed at a younger age, it can result in more health problems later in life.
One common sign that a young child is gluten sensitive is their selection of foods. Do you know someone that will only eat grains (like bread and pasta) and dairy (like cheese and milk) and refuse most other foods? In a gluten-sensitive person, these foods are not properly broken down during digestion and actually create opiate-type compounds in the body. These compounds mimic the effects of morphine, which can dramatically affect the brain and other parts of the body. (MSG and other food preservatives can do this as well.)
This reaction results in strong cravings to grains and dairy, so that a young gluten-sensitive child typically does not want to have other foods when offered. This cycle can be broken. When you substitute the “normal” foods with gluten-free (or grain-free) and dairy-free options, thereby reducing the opiate-like reaction, children will often open up to other food options and will start eating more vegetables, proteins, etc.
Why the Rise in Gluten Sensitivity?
People have become more sensitive to gluten in recent years. There are a few reasons for this. First, the gluten we eat today is not the same gluten our grandparents ate. In the United States, wheat has been “selectively bred” over the years for specific traits such as taste, texture, rise, high-yielding, and drought-tolerance. (It is the gluten that gives bread its fluffiness and chewiness.) This breeding has caused the gluten in wheat to become much more prevalent than wheat available 50 to 100 years ago.
But, it is not only the wheat that has changed. Our bodies and our environment have changed too. Have you noticed that with each generation, the children seem to be more sensitive and less resilient? Adults are feeling the effects too as more illnesses and autoimmune diseases are occurring. This stems from a number of factors including:
- Poor Nutrition – If we are not putting high quality foods in our bodies, our bodies will suffer. Processed foods are just not as nutritious as fresh, homemade foods. The foods we eat on a daily basis have a dramatic affect on the health of the cells in our body and the maintenance of healthy bacteria in our gut.
- Antibiotics – The overuse of antibiotics, which kills off the good bacteria at the same time it is going after the bad bacteria, creates in imbalance. We need the good bacteria to help with digestion and absorption of nutrients. The correct balance is the key for our immune system.
- GMOs – Genetically modified (GM) foods were first introduced into the mainstream in the 1990s. The seeds for these foods are either engineered to withstand high amounts of pesticides and/or have been injected with the Bt-toxin which is made to kill the bug if it tries to eat the plant. Imagine the harm it is creating in our own bodies when we eat the same plant. It is now known that it at least compromises our good bacteria and gut flora. (See my previous post on GMOs for more information.)
- Pharmaceuticals – Other medications (including steroids), contraceptives, and vaccines can also compromise our digestive system and gut flora.
- Pollution – New chemicals are introduced into the environment on a daily basis. Our bodies are working so hard to eliminate the toxins we breathe, smell, and touch (and put on our skin) that there is less energy for other body functions such as digestion.
- EMFs – Our exposure to radiation and electromagnetic frequencies (EMFs) has dramatically increased in the last 20 years, especially with the introduction of cell phones and wireless networks, which affects how cells in our bodies absorb nutrients and eliminate toxins. (That will be a blog for another time.)
- Microbes – Undetected low grade infections (bacteria and viruses), parasites, and fungi also weakens our immune systems. If our gut is compromised from foods and other factors, our immune systems are less likely to fight off these microbes which further compromise our health.
If your body is inundated by a number of the factors listed above, your digestive system becomes compromised making it harder to digest gluten (and other foods) and absorb the nutrients it needs.
Testing for Gluten Sensitivity
Until more recently, gluten-sensitivity was difficult to diagnose. Previous medical testing was not that accurate, often resulting in false negatives because the test concentrated on just one component of the gluten, the gliadin, and measured for the resulting gliadin antibody. This test (and others like biopsies and DNA testing) can often detect the gluten intolerance found in Celiac Disease, but not necessarily the more common gluten sensitivities.
As explained above, there are multiple components (proteins and peptides) of wheat and these should all be checked. A more comprehensive test is now offered by Cyrex Labs. If you go to this link, it includes a great diagram showing the many components of wheat and wheat gluten that need to be considered. When a “CYREX Array 3” lab test is done, over nine peptides of wheat (not just gliadin) are analyzed so you really get a good picture of your grain sensitivities. The “CYREX Array 2” panel will pinpoint if you already have intestinal permeability (leaky gut). (The “CYREX Array 4” panel checks for gluten-associated cross-reactive foods and food sensitivities and may helpful for those that find themselves sensitive to many types of foods.)
However, remember, you don’t necessarily need a lab test to determine if you are gluten-sensitive. If you remove ALL gluten (and related foods) for a couple of weeks and see improvement in your health, you will know that you are gluten-sensitive.
How to Heal
A key thing to remember is that you need to be 100% off gluten (even hidden sources) for the body to stop making the gliadin antibodies. If you stop eating gluten but then have just a little of it one day, the antibodies are reintroduced and you need to start all over again. (More about hidden sources and cross-contamination in Part 2.) You may not feel an immediate reaction but the body is affected.
Eliminating gluten and GMOs (including corn and soy) is a great first step and many people feel dramatically better after eliminating these. In fact, some find that certain symptoms they have been living with for years dissipate after only a few weeks. (Dairy may need to be eliminated too.) In Part 2 of this blog, I will discuss how to do this in more detail.
In reality, most people need to stay off gluten and other culprit foods for 6 to 18 months. It is not enough for only the symptoms to go away. The goal is to heal the intestinal lining and the brain – to heal the inflammation that is occurring inside the body so that symptoms can permanently go away. Quicker improvements are usually seen in people with more intestinal-related issues like IBS, Crohn’s, chronic diarrhea or constipation, and migraine headaches. For those with more chronic autoimmune conditions, it usually takes longer to improve and/or fully heal.
For some people, staying off gluten and other key foods is all they need to do. For others, additional steps may be necessary to regain optimal health, especially when more complicated autoimmune factors are occurring. These steps may include replenishing depleted nutrients with specific supplements, identifying specific toxins (environmental, viral, bacterial, fungal, parasitic) and eliminating them, doing additional cleansing of the body, taking specific supplements to more fully heal the gut, clearing emotional blockages, etc. That is when working with holistic health practitioner can really make a difference.
The gut can be healed. . . more in Part 2 coming soon.
This article was written by Sharon Harmon, founder of Life Design for Health. She has a passion for helping people find their way back to optimum health. Please contact her if you would like to know more. There is a great deal of health-related information in her blog articles and on her website.