Have you been curious about the growing gluten-free movement? Are you wondering if it’s a fad or a hoax?
The truth is that for some people, gluten is a significant problem. There are various tests that measure the effects of gluten in the body in the form of intestinal damage and antibody reactions. There is also a large amount of clinical evidence that a gluten-free diet improves symptoms in many people.
Why Is Gluten More of a Problem Now?
When our ancient ancestors began cultivating grains 12,000 years ago, the form of wheat grown was vastly different from the wheat grown today. About 150 years ago, it was discovered that people love the effects of gluten in baking, which makes the dough elastic and breads fluffy. Plant breeders began to hybridize wheat to have more and more gluten. The gluten content of commercial wheat now is far higher than the gluten content of ancient grains.
In addition, our ancient ancestors fermented their grains, in processes similar to making sour dough bread today. This process breaks down or “pre-digests” the proteins in the grains so that they are more digestible. This is not a common practice in bread-making today.
How Gluten Affects the Gut
Thanks to the work of doctor and researcher Dr. Alessio Fasano, there is evidence that gluten directly causes intestinal permeability, commonly referred to as “leaky gut.” The gut lining is only one layer of cells, with tight junctions between them. These junctions keep the contents of the gut from leaking into the bloodstream, and nutrients are absorbed through different transport systems across the intestinal cells.
The presence of gluten in the gut upregulates a protein called zonulin. Zonulin increases intestinal permeability by creating gaps in the junctions between these cells. This allows food particles, microorganisms, toxins and other substances in the gut to leak through to the other side. Immune cells identify these as enemies and mount an inflammatory response. This is reversible and different people have different levels of sensitivity to this. Intestinal cells regenerate quickly when gluten is removed.
Celiac Disease vs Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
There are two types of reactions to gluten. The first and more commonly known reaction is celiac disease. This is a very specific autoimmune reaction to gluten. When exposed to gluten, the person’s immune system begins to attack the lining of the intestines. Over time, the tiny villi and microvilli that are absorption sites for nutrients are worn down so that nutrient absorption is impaired. This condition may or may not come with digestive or other symptoms. With celiac disease, it can take a long time for the gut lining to heal once gluten is strictly removed from the diet and other sources.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (also referred to as gluten intolerance) is just now coming into the spotlight as a recognized condition. This causes an immune and inflammatory reaction to gluten, resulting in a number of possible symptoms, including:
- digestive symptoms (heartburn, nausea, bloating, cramping, gassiness, diarrhea)
- joint pain
- brain fog
- mood issues (anxiety/depression
- memory and concentration problems
- skin rashes
Is It Gluten or Herbicides?
A largely unknown practice in harvesting many commercial crops, including grains and legumes, is desiccation. This is the practice of spraying plants with herbicides when it’s time to harvest. This quickens the ripening of the crop and has economic benefits.
However, there is speculation that pesticide residue left on the crops causes digestive issues in some people. This is a variable to consider when deciphering whether someone’s sensitivity to wheat is due to the wheat itself or to the pesticide residue. Doing a trial of only organic wheat products may shed light on this.
Doing a Trial Elimination
If you suspect you have a reaction to gluten, there are tests that can check you for celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. But you can perform your own test by doing an elimination diet for at least 6 weeks. Because of its effect on the body, a sensitivity to gluten can cause significant inflammation and it takes time for that inflammation to subside. You must be 100% gluten free during the elimination. Having even a small amount can trigger on-going inflammation, so you won’t know if the elimination benefits you or not.
Once you are 100% gluten free, keep a log of all symptoms listed above and any additional ones specific to you. Keep track of any changes as time goes on.
You can continue to stay gluten free as long as you want. But if you miss gluten and want to reintroduce it, start by eating 2-3 servings on one day, then don’t eat it again for 72 hours. It can take up to 72 hours for sensitivity symptoms to emerge. Continue to log any symptoms or changes that occur for those 72 hours. If you notice symptoms emerging or returning, you should consider removing gluten for longer or forever.
If you don’t notice any symptoms, you can continue to introduce gluten-containing foods. It’s possible that you can tolerate occasional gluten. Note that at Radiance Functional Medicine, our nutritionists don’t recommend regular intake of gluten-containing foods because of the damaging effects on the intestinal lining. Gluten-containing foods that are more like our ancient ancestors ate – organic, fermented, sprouted and ancient varieties – are sometimes better tolerated than non-organic commercial wheat products.
Tips About Transitioning to Gluten Free
You may be surprised to learn that wheat isn’t the only source of gluten. Other sources include barley (malt), rye, spelt, kamut, farro and brewer’s yeast. Click here for a comprehensive list of foods and items that contain gluten. Gluten can be found in unexpected places like soy sauce, beer, supplements, cosmetics and even the glue on envelopes. Gluten-containing ingredients may also have names that are unrelated to their source, such as maltodextrin or caramel coloring.
It’s important to understand that while wheat is an ingredient that must be listed on a product’s allergen statement, gluten is not. If the product doesn’t specifically state “Gluten-Free,” you must be a detective by reading the ingredients and allergen statement. Gluten-containing ingredients besides wheat may be in a product.
While oats are gluten free, they are often grown in proximity to wheat and cross-contamination can occur. We recommend buying oats that are specifically labeled as gluten-free.
In previous years, it was difficult to find good gluten-free substitutes for bread, baked goods and flours. The good news is that with so many people eating gluten free now, it’s much easier to find delicious gluten-free products such as breads, pastas, wraps, cereals, crackers, desserts, and tamari sauce (gluten-free soy sauce). These products are made with alternative grains, legumes and tubers, such as rice, quinoa, cassava, chick-peas and almonds. They usually display a gluten-free label.
Restaurants can be tricky to navigate. It’s a good idea to look at the menu on-line or call before going, to make sure you have choices. Many restaurants specifically list gluten-free items on the menu. They often have gluten-free substitutes like buns or lettuce-wraps. With others, you may need to double-check ingredients with the wait staff. Never assume that something is gluten-free. Salad dressings, sauces French-fries and even sushi rice can contain gluten! Finally, be aware that fryers are usually used to fry both gluten and non-gluten items. While the item itself is gluten-free, cross-contamination in the fryer can be problematic for some people.
This may seem complicated, but after some practice, you will get the hang of it. Just remember, eating a whole-foods diet without additives and extra ingredients makes it much easier to eat gluten-free, and it’s the most nutritious way of eating.
At Radiance Functional Medicine, we believe that food is medicine. We hope that you will allow us to help you heal your gut, balance your hormones, or find a way of eating that helps you thrive! Schedule an appointment to get started. Whether you are looking for a Nutritionist or Functional Medicine Doctor in Denver or your local area, we see patients in person and virtually. Call our office at 303.333.1668 to schedule your Initial Nutrition Consultation.