We are increasingly aware of the link between diet and health. We now know that we should avoid sugar and processed food, but could gluten also be causing problems? The epidemic of gluten intolerance including both celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is spreading and along with it the rapid growth of the gluten-free industry. Why are so many people going gluten-free?
Is gluten-free diet just another crazy fad? Is gluten intolerance over-hyped or is it a legitimate condition that is much more common than we think?
What’s All The Fuss About?
Gluten makes up 80 percent of the protein found in grains like wheat, barley and rye. It is made up of two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, and is responsible for the elasticity in dough. Long chains of gluten are formed during the kneading process; these trap carbon dioxide, causing baked goods to rise, giving them that familiar firm and light texture. Gluten rich grains were introduced in Roman times as a source of carbohydrates, and since the industrial revolution our consumption has increased massively. Grains like wheat have become a mainstay of both our traditional and modern dietary cultures.
So how Does it Affect our Health?
The most formidable gluten-related risk is the autoimmune condition, celiac disease. The immune system identifies gluten as an invader and responds by triggering antibodies, which are usually geared to fighting off foreign bodies, like bacteria and viruses, rather than food. Alarmingly, when the antibodies attack gluten, they may accidentally attack the intestinal lining, causing damage to the small intestine. This can affect the gut’s ability to absorb nutrients, leading to a host of other illnesses.
Celiac disease is not an allergic reaction; allergies cause a similar immune response but with allergy antibodies. Wheat allergy mirrors some of the gastrointestinal symptoms, but also causes more common allergic reactions, like skin rashes, runny or stuffy nose, asthma, itching, swelling, trouble breathing, wheezing and, most serious and sometime fatal, anaphylaxis. If you suffer any of these reactions when you eat wheat, you should seek advice from your doctor.
While there is no consensus on the definition of non-celiac gluten sensitivity yet, the most common understanding is that it is a reaction to gluten that is not autoimmune in nature (like celiac disease) or allergic (like wheat allergy) and which improves once gluten is removed from the diet. It seems to be affecting many more people than first thought.
Are You Affected Without Realizing It?
The assumption that gluten intolerance always causes digestive problems isn’t true. Around 50 percent of new patients diagnosed with celiac disease do not show any symptoms in the gut.
Gluten intolerance can affect almost any tissue or organ in the body: the brain, stomach, liver, blood vessels, endocrine system, skin, etc. Both Celiac Disease and Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity are associated with a variety of symptoms and diseases, from Type 1 diabetes to schizophrenia, epilepsy and psoriasis. Because the symptoms are so broad and nonspecific (can be attributed to many other conditions), patients and even doctors may not suspect gluten to be the cause.
- Gastrointestinal issues (diarrhea, constipation, bloating, flatulence and abdominal pain)
- Foggy head and poor memory
- Joint and muscle pain
- Numbness and tingling in the arms and legs
Have you been plagued by any of these symptoms? It could be because of the gluten in your diet!
What’s the Evidence?
While there is much controversy about gluten, an extensive review of studies and literature published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition (2014) presents some thought-provoking conclusions: “A significant percentage of the general population report problems caused by wheat and/or gluten ingestion, even though they do not have celiac disease or wheat allergy.” They also state patients with general symptoms of lethargy and intestinal problems reported an “improvement of symptoms on a gluten-free diet.”
The Journal of Nutrition (2013) also suggests a strong relationship between non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and neuropsychiatric disorders, particularly autism and schizophrenia. They also reveal that other proteins found in wheat increase both physical and mental symptoms.
While NCGS was discovered in the 1980’s, a lack of studies and symptom overlap with conditions like Irritable Bowel Syndrome has made reporting difficult. However, the sheer volume of studies and papers being published over the last decade is testament to growing scientific and clinical concern.
The demand for information brought together a panel of 15 experts to carry out a thorough review in order to assist clinicians in diagnosing and treating this spectrum of disorders. Their consensus review (2012) looks at data from thousands of clinical reports in multiple countries, and ranks among the most frequently downloaded papers of the 65 journals published by BioMed Central (a leading publisher of peer-reviewed journals), indicating how popular the topic has become.
The experts conclude “the high frequency and wide range of adverse reactions to gluten raise the question as to why this dietary protein is toxic for so many individuals in the world. One possible explanation is that the selection of wheat varieties with higher gluten content has been a continuous process during the last 10,000 years, with changes dictated more by technological rather than nutritional reasons.”
Why is it Still Ignored by the Medical Community?
Celiac disease, and the spectrum of gluten sensitivity, could be cured by removing gluten from the diet. Scientific research to support gluten-free living is still in the early stages and considered by some to be a fad. However, this could be for reasons other than scientific integrity. It could be because it is not profitable for those who pay for the majority of health research to support such studies. The pharmaceutical companies and the food industry could be set to lose a lot of money if consumers turned to natural, gluten-free living and subsequently eliminated from their lives many symptoms associated with its consumption without the need for medications!
Who Should Go Gluten-Free?
If you eat a gluten-rich diet and don’t suffer any issues, enjoy! However, try not to consume gluten rich foods at the expense of more nourishing foods such as fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, dairy, meat and fish. The factors that cause people to become intolerant to gluten have still not been fully understood.
However, if you do suffer from gastrointestinal issues, or any of the symptoms mentioned above, gluten could be the cause.
Acceptance that gluten could cause these issues is hard to digest. We all love the smell of freshly baked bread, and it is difficult to think these harmless looking grains could cause a problem. We need more research, but evidence is really mounting to suggest going gluten-free can combat these issues.
What Can We Do?
Gluten intolerance is difficult to identify. Most research employs the elimination approach, monitoring the body after gluten has been removed from the diet. The only sure way to know is to do the digesting yourself!
Let The Experiment Begin
Monitor your body and mood over four weeks of eating your normal intake of gluten then try at least four weeks without.
- Be careful, gluten is in almost everything, from soy sauce to licorice. Read the labels carefully, as it is rarely obvious!
- Replace gluten grains with other complex carbohydrates, like sweet potatoes, yams, taro and plantains, as these will keep you feeling full and help you snack less.
- Eat plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables to provide your gut and brain with all the nutrients they need for optimum health!
Gluten has been linked to a large number of gastrointestinal issues, lethargy and headaches among other symptoms. If you have any of the health issues discussed, you owe it to yourself to give gluten-free living a go. You’ve got nothing to lose, except symptoms! If so many people are experiencing gluten-related health issues, should we really consume it? It’s worth thinking about.References