A Guide to Gluten

gluten free

Today’s post on gluten is the last in a 3 part series on allergenic and harmful ingredients hidden in our food. The first part discussed MSG, a chemical that excites our cells to death, but makes our food taste awesome. The second part was about sugar, and how manufacturers use it to mask tasteless food and hijack our tastebuds to keep us wanting more and more. Today is all about gluten and where it is found.

 

WHAT IS GLUTEN?

Gluten is a controversial buzzword that we often hear these days, in fact 30% of Americans are currently trying to avoid eating gluten, but do you even know what gluten is? Skeptics will actually quiz you :/ I know, I used to be one.

Gluten is a family of proteins found most commonly in wheat (think delicious bread!) but also in other grains like barley, rye, spelt and triticale. Coming from the Latin root “glue”, gluten when combined with water helps bind foods together and rise giving our breads, pastries and other foods a fluffy, satisfying texture. Gluten may taste delightful (seriously!) but glue in my intestines certainly does not sound like a good thing...

Gluten is found in grains like wheat, barley, rye, spelt and triticale
Gluten is found in grains like wheat, barley, rye, spelt and triticale

SYMPTOMS OF GLUTEN SENSITIVITY

Gluten sensitivity shows up many different ways. It actually hard to isolate since it mimics so many other diseases. The most common symptoms are digestive distress of all kinds, stomach pain, gas, bloating, and IBS. These make sense but it can also show up as joint pain, rashes and fatigue. These symptoms will occur shortly after eating gluten foods. Gluten is even capable of breaking down the blood-brain barrier which can result in a multitude of mental symptoms like brain fog and depression. Recurring exposure to gluten in sensitive individuals can ultimately progress to auto immunity after a long period of time.

Often when people eliminate gluten from their diet they find that they feel much better. It is estimated that 1 in 3 people are gluten intolerant, and 8 in 10 are genetically predisposed to sensitivity. In a society where our #1 source of calories is refined flour and people rarely cook this is especially problematic!

Digestive issues are a big sign of gluten sensitivity
Digestive issues are a big sign of gluten sensitivity

WHY SHOULD I AVOID GLUTEN?

Today’s wheat is not the wheat our ancestors ate. It has been hybridized and industrialized to the point that there is no longer predigestion of grain taking place, wheat used to take a long time to harvest and would sit in the sun to dry as part of the process. Also, the flour is now ground finer than with a traditional mill making it more readily absorbed by the body. And, surprisingly, modern wheat now has extra chromosomes and proteins that did not occur in ancient grains.

Furthermore, we can now deaminate gluten allowing it to be dissolved into water so that it is in products that have never before contained gluten. So, not only are we getting a different kind of gluten in our diet we are also getting more of it than ever before. For many people, especially those with leaky gut, autoimmune, or thyroid issues, consumption of gluten can be challenging.

Some doctors claim that gluten is perfectly safe, however there is growing evidence that this is not actually the case. Also, there are several types of gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is the most severe, where any contact with gluten can be life threatening. In Celiacs gluten consumption over time will cause the immune system to destroy and attack the gut lining resulting in autoimmunity to gluten.

Because of the damage to the villi, the absorptive surface lining the gut, Celiac disease, which means “hollow” in Greek, often results in impaired nutrient absorption and weight loss. 30-40% of people have the genetic makeup to develop Celiac disease although not everyone gets it. It is estimated however that 80% of Celiacs who have the disease do not know it. It is often mistaken for IBS or other gut issues. Celiac’s is the only gluten sensitivity recognized by allopathic doctors at this time however, it can take a long time to get to that diagnosis.

In non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) people are unable to digest gluten and often experience the same side effects as those with Celiacs but gluten consumption does not directly attack the gut lining. Damage, as you will see, may occur in other parts of the body instead. This intolerance can range from mild to celiac. The degree of sensitivity depends on the state of the intestines.

Villi increase the absorptive surface of intestines 30x!
The lining of the intestines is only 1 cell thick.
Villi increase the absorptive surface of intestines 30x! The lining of the intestines is only 1 cell thick.

HOW DOES GLUTEN MAKE YOU SICK?

Gluten is made up of the peptides gliadin and glutenin. It is believed that gliadin is the cause of negative side effects associated with gluten. Basically, gluten causes an autoimmune response. When it arrives in your small intestine it will trigger the release of a chemical called zonulin that tells the tightly joined cells in the intestinal lining to open up, creating leaky gut.

Normally the lining of your intestines is impermeable and nutrients are absorbed through the cells as a first defense. But, when these junctions are opened up it allows larger particles of undigested proteins, and pathogens around the cells straight into the system. The immune system, 70-80% of which lies just below the surface of the intestines, then comes to the rescue. It marks these foreign invaders as dangerous, memorizes their structure for future attacks, and sets off an inflammatory response to clean everything up. Basically inflammation is the body’s response to anything perceived as dangerous.

Problems really occur with consumption of gluten and refined grains over time. The leaky gut situation increases and the inflammatory response will become chronic. The immune will begin to attack the enzyme producing cells of the gut further escalating dysfunction. To make matter far worse, in the process know as molecular mimicry the memorized invaders often resemble other tissues in the body and the immune will attack them too. Gliadin resembles the gut lining. The immune response to gliadin will eventually damage the villi, the finger like cells that increase the absorptive surface of the gut. Glutenin resembles the thyroid. Thyroid hormone is extremely necessary for health. Every cell in the body has thyroid receptors. If the thyroid cannot produce hormone then all kinds of hormonal symptoms and loss of energy will occur. In time, if left unchecked, the thyroid will begin to lose function. Furthermore, chronic inflammation itself stresses the immune system making it less effective, resulting in food and environmental allergies.

These processes are not instantaneous. They happen over many years. Sometimes an intolerant person may not even have symptoms when they eat gluten but the damage can still occur. Eating gluten can elevate immune antibodies for up to 3 months. So, gluten just 4x a year = year round inflammation! There is no 80/20 rule on this one. If a person is sensitive they can’t just eat a little bit of gluten or cut back. That’s kinda like being a little bit pregnant. No go.

Blood testing is often inaccurate and misses milder cases of sensitivity as it only tests for a portion of gliadin. And, Celiac is not diagnosed until there is visible damage to the villi. The best way to determine if gluten affects you is to cut it out for a period of 6 weeks and see how you feel. On a gluten free diet, symptoms can improve in just 2 weeks, virtually disappear in 3 months and with a good diet the villi of the intestinal lining can repair in about 6 months.

junk food

WHERE DO I FIND GLUTEN?

Want to avoid gluten? You better become a proficient label reader. It is not just in the obvious places like bread, pasta, cereal, cake and crackers. Similar to sugar and MSG, food manufacturers hide gluten in pretty much everything processed and fast food. It is best to take the perspective that there IS gluten in a product until it is proven not to be.

gluten

Keep in mind, just because a box says gluten free does not mean it is healthy. Refined gluten free foods often contain loads of sugar or other sweeteners, bad fats and msg. A packaged food should have 5 ingredients or less of easily pronounceable ingredients. Remember, pastured meat, fruits, veggies, and herbs are all naturally gluten free 🙂

TIPS TO GO GLUTEN FREE:

  • Make a commitment to try 6 weeks GF
  • Learn to read labels and be vigilant
  • Start by checking medications and supplements
  • It's OK to take your time to phase out GF foods and adjust, but once they’re out keep ‘em out
    • Start with obvious things like bread and pasta
    • Then tackle the hidden items
    • Set a date to be completely GF
    • Clean out your pantry by that date
  • Stay away from junk food and fast food, almost all have gluten, MSG, and/or sugar
  • Remember just because it says GF doesn’t mean its healthy
  • Focus on the things you CAN have instead of the things you can't have. Mindset is more than half the battle.
  • Food journal to see what foods trigger you and reveal hidden gluten
  • If you drink, stick to rum tequila, potato vodka and distilled spirits
  • Not all grains are bad. After your elimination period, when you phase back in gluten grains choose ancient whole grains like einkorn which is naturally low gluten and make sure they are properly prepared, think sourdough bread from an artisan baker.
  • Consider working with a practitioner to determine whether your health issue is gluten or something else.

Check out this Celiac quick start guide 

 

Most real whole foods are naturally GF
Most real whole foods are naturally GF

Have you gone gluten free? If so, how has it affected your health? Let us know in the comments.

This post was originally written for Crossfit Round Rock.

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