Conventional wisdom regarding gluten tell us that that it is harmless, unless you are coeliac. Now although what I am about to share with you could be seen as 'going against the grain,' the steadily increasing numbers of people experiencing digestive discomfort and health complications related to gluten ingestion will wholeheartedly agree - gluten is the common factor in their cases.
Fortunately, after long being met with much skepticism and resistance from the scientific community, research has emerged confirming gluten as playing a central role in wreaking havoc on our gut and health on a global scale - and not just in people with coeliac disease.
WHAT GLUTEN ACTUALLY IS...
From an evolutionary standpoint, human beings have lead a gluten free lifestyle for the last 2.5 million years. It was only quite recently with the agricultural revolution in the last 10,000 years B.C., that humans bridged the gap from our nomadic hunter-gatherer roots to relying on farming methods for food production. As a result, we were able to introduce grains as a dietary staple.
Consequently, not all of us have had enough time to genetically adapt to cope with the burden of gluten digestion.
Gluten is an indigestible protein, made up of the peptides glutenin & gliadin, and occurs naturally in grains such as wheat, rye and barley. In order to properly digest gluten, our body is dependent on digestive enzymes, which act like scissors that strip these proteins down into amino acids that can be utilized by the body. When this process is impaired, is when the symptoms and gastro-intestinal upset begin.
So if gluten is so bad for people, why don’t we just cut gluten out of everything? Well the word ‘gluten’ itself comes from Latin meaning ‘glue.’ When added to water, gluten becomes a binding agent and has a sticky, spongy texture. In the case of bread dough, gluten makes it pliable and allows easy kneading and stretching. Take away the gluten and you are going to have baked goods with more in common with a cardboard box than bread.
Statistics presented by Coeliac Australia, estimate that approximately 1 in 70 Australians are affected by coeliac disease whilst 80% of this number remain undiagnosed. Coeliac disease is a digestive disorder that links gluten ingestion with symptoms similar to those of IBS such as abdominal pain such as cramping, gas, bloating and loose stools.
SIGNS YOU MAY BE GLUTEN INTOLERANT
- Cognitive decline, such as brain fog and mood swings.
- Loose stools
- Abdominal pain such as cramping
- Excess gas and/or flatulence
GLUTEN & YOUR GUT
‘All disease begins in the gut’ – Hippocrates
The real trouble starts when gluten hits the small intestine, as this is where it unleashes most of its fury. The lining of the small intestine is covered with small spongy, tentacle-like protrusions called villi, which are covered with even smaller protrusions called microvilli, which assist absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream.
When the digestive system is suffering under the digestive burden of processing gluten, it results in heavy gastric inflammation. This causes the villi to become swollen and inflamed, reducing their surface area and impairing nutrient absorption which creates micronutrient deficiencies of important vitamins and minerals such as B12, zinc and magnesium.
Upon detection of gluten in the bloodstream, the immune system launches into action the same as it would in the presence of a foreign body such as virus or other pathogen. This creates chronic inflammation which is linked to obesity, fat gain, long term immune suppression, increased cortisol, accelerated raging as well as the development of autoimmune disorders such as hashimoto's thyroiditis.
The cycle of inflammation is also perpetuated in the presence of gut permeability, which is when the integrity of the gut lining becomes compromised and bad bacteria and other food particles are allowed to cross into the bloodstream. Common causes include food sensitivities, infections, toxicity, stress and natural aging, and shares similar IBS type symptoms such as those common in people with gluten intolerance such as bloating, loose stools, chronic fatigue and development of autoimmune conditions.
If you are exhibiting signs of gluten sensitivity, your first port of call would be to screen for coeliac disease by ordering a blood test for Tissue Transglutaminase Antibodies (tTG-IgA). In the presence of gluten in their diet, these antibodies accumulate in the bloodstream in a person with coeliac disease. Be mindful that you need to eat gluten to produce these antibodies; otherwise you may get a false negative.
NON-COELIAC GLUTEN SENSITIVITY
It is the general consensus that if you are not diagnosed coeliac, then you have absolutely no reason to be eating gluten free. But what if you aren’t coeliac but still don’t feel right when eating gluten?
The term Non-Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) was coined to describe someone who albeit not being diagnosed with coeliac disease, reports feeling better in the absence of gluten from their diet.
In a recent study, 18 patients who fit the profile for NCGS were involved in a clinical trial to determine whether gluten was the trigger for their symptoms. All patients participating possessed the genetic potential for coeliac, yet had negative coeliac serology at the time of testing and all had a history of gastrointestinal upset in the presence of gluten. After being administered 20g of gluten per day, they found the majority of patients symptoms reoccurred, and their 'quality of life' scores worsened. Upon completion of a bowel biopsy, an essential requirement for the proper diagnosis of coeliac disease, researchers concluded that non-coeliac subjects exhibiting symptomatology identical to those of true coeliacs and negative antibodies on their bloodwork, were likely candidates for what they termed 'probable coeliac-lite disease.'
OTHER POTENTIAL TRIGGERS
Investigation into what triggers symptomatology in people claiming to have NCGS has been put down to a number of factors. Surprisingly, not related to gluten per se, yet in themselves strengthen the argument for removing wheat from the diet.
#1 GLUTEN ACTIVATES A MOLECULE CALLED ZONULIN IN THE GUT THAT CAUSES GUT PERMEABILITY
Indiscriminate of whether you are coeliac or not, scientists have found that gluten can also stimulate a molecule in the gut called zonulin. Zonulin contributes to gut permeability as once activated, it compromises the integrity of the gut barrier by opening up the junctions of the gut barrier, allowing foreign bodies to pass into the blood stream.
#2 AMYLASE TRYPSIN INHIBITORS ARE RESISTANT TO DIGESTIVE ENZYMES
Amylase Trypsin Inhibitors (ATI’s) found in wheat, are wheat’s own built in organic pesticide and are another likely reason why people experience gastric discomfort when eating wheat. Even though coeliac disease has been ruled out. ATI’s are proteins that are highly protease resistant, meaning they are resistant to the digestive protein protease, an enzyme responsible for digestion of proteins and peptides. Such as in the case of gluten, this result in chronic intestinal inflammation. A study conducted in the Journal of Experimental Medicine found, ATI’s ‘as strong activators of innate immune responses in monocytes, macrophages, and dendritic cells…. and elicit release of pro-inflammatory cytokines in cells from celiac and non-celiac patients and in celiac patients' biopsies.’
#3 FODMAP's CAN TRIGGER GASTRIC UPSET IN INDIVIDUALS SIMILAR TO THOSE OF GLUTEN INTOLERANCE
Another theory that holds weight in relation to what triggers symptoms in people who claim to have NCGS, is related to not gluten – but FODMAP’s. FODMAP is an acronym that stands for Fermentable Oligo-saccharides, Di-saccharides, Monosaccharides and Polyols. These are all names for a bunch of sugars found in gluten containing foods such as bread, pasta and grains. For someone FODMAP intolerant, these sugars ferment in the gut and cause bloating, gas and some of the other complications typically associated with gluten sensitivity or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). As a result, when people suspect gluten for their digestive woes and begin to eliminate wheat, find their gastrointestinal upset begins to subside, and then assume gluten intolerance is considered the culprit. When in fact this may not exactly be the case.
THE BENEFITS OF BEING GLUTEN FREE
So is there a direct link between gluten and compromised gut health, or is it all in the mind? Or is non-coeliac gluten sensitivity actually a thing? Although the concept of NCGS is still in its infancy, and more research is needed to further validate the existence of this condition. Personally, I am of the opinion that food intolerances occur across a wide spectrum, and people will all react differently - as our genetic makeup is different.
Yet when you consider the nutritional value of processed wheat, it leaves a lot to be desired. Even ‘healthy’ wholegrain based flours are fairly nutritionally void in comparison to foods such as nuts, fresh fruits and vegetables. With the removal of gluten from the diet in the form of wheat and starchy carbs, leaves room to be filled with nutritious wholefoods such as good fats and vegetables.
Lastly, there really aren’t any real drawbacks to gluten free living. In fact, providing that you are filling the void created by wheat products and processed foods with nutrient dense wholefoods such as nuts, fresh vegetables etc. then there really aren’t any drawbacks. Whilst on the topic of food, don’t let yourself be fooled into thinking that just because your foods are gluten free, they are a healthier option. Gluten or no gluten, at the end of the day - bread is still bread and cake is still cake.
- Czaja-Bulsa, G. "Non Coeliac Gluten Sensitivity - A New Disease with Gluten Intolerance." National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 29 Aug. 2014. Web. 13 July 2016. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25245857>.
- Lipski, Elizabeth. Digestive Wellness: Strengthen the Immune System and Prevent Disease through Healthy Digestion. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2012. Print.
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