Spotlight on: GLUTEN

Today we’re going to take a closer look at gluten. What it is, and how it might be affecting us or our children.

5 Ways That Your Family Might Be Reacting to GLUTEN

What is gluten?

Gluten is the protein found in wheat, rye, barley, commercial oats, kamut, and spelt.  In baked goods, it gives that desirable sticky, gluey texture.

Gluten also hides under many pseudonyms, in countless packaged foods.  It can be lurking in everything from baked beans, to vinegar…soy sauce, to candy…spices to hot chocolate.

Why is there so much press around gluten?

Gluten is becoming a hot topic, and rightfully so.  More and more, we are learning how gluten can negatively affect the body.  But it this ‘new’ news?  Yes, and no.

  • Evolutionally-speaking, gluten-containing foods are relatively ‘new’ for humans (we existed for over a million years without eating them). So in that regard, our bodies may not be genetically well-equipped to deal with these foods.
  • The foods themselves, especially wheat, have changed quite dramatically since the days of grandparents and great grandparents. Many of these foods have undergone genetic modification, and are sprayed heavily with pesticides, giving our bodies extra hurdles to overcome when it comes to digesting and absorbing nutrients.
  • Our bodies are not as resilient and robust as they once were. We’re being bombarded with toxins, medications, stress, processed foods…all which damage our guts.  A damaged gut means weaker digestion and altered immune response, which then further affects how our bodies are ‘recognizing’ and digesting these foods.

As a result, more people are reacting to gluten-containing foods. 

But are these affected individuals *aware* that they’re reacting to gluten? 

In most cases, no.

Most people associate food reactions with something dramatic like an Epipen-entailing anaphylactic response, or severe digestive distress such as chronic constipation and/or diarrhea. But in the majority of cases, symptoms can be much broader, more subtle, delayed reaction time, and can years to intensify.

What are the ways that we might be reacting to gluten?

An individual may be reacting to gluten in one, or a combination, of the following ways:

  1. General Inflammatory Response

When we are physically injured (i.e. a bump of a cut), an inflammatory response is initiated. As the body works to heal the injury, the affected area gets red and swollen.  This is a positive (beneficial) reaction.

However, inflammation doesn’t always result in positive results.  Gluten is a gut irritant and causes inflammation, to some degree, in every individual.  When we repeatedly irritate the body via inflammatory foods (or other sources such as stress, or poor sleep), inflammation occurs in the gut lining.  Here, inflammation wreaks havoc on the gut, resulting in poor digestion, altered immune response, increased permeability (Leaky Gut), disrupted microbiome, decreased neurotransmitter production, and secondary inflammation in the brain.

2Decreased Enzyme Production

The enzymes required to breakdown gluten (and dairy) are produced in the gut walls.  In North America, a large percentage of the population has a deficiency in this enzyme, either due to a genetic predisposition, or as a result of damage to the gut lining (see point #1).  When the enzyme levels are low, the gluten (and also the milk protein, casein) are not completely broken down.  As a result, the peptides (partially-digested proteins) circulate in the body where they can cause other issues, such as those outline below.

Opiate-Like Response

The gluten (and dairy) peptides can sometimes mimic the chemical composition of opiates (the drug family that includes morphine and heroin).  As can be predicted, this has quite significant effects on the body, and can result in behaviours such as spaciness, ‘brain fog’, fatigue, problems with speech and hearing, irritability and aggression, moodiness, anxiety/depression and sleep problems. The affected individual can become addicted to the foods and the feelings/physiological effects that they bring.

Poor Methylation

Methylation is a complicated topic, warranting a separate (or series of!) blog posts.  Briefly, impaired methylation can result in difficulties removing toxins from the body, and imbalanced production of neurotransmitters.

3. IgE Allergies (Wheat Allergy)

IgE-mediated allergies are the type of food allergy that most people are familiar with, and it is this type of reaction that is involved in the acute and dramatic responses to foods such as peanuts.  In terms of gluten-containing foods, the body’s reaction may not be to gluten specifically, but an allergic reaction to any of the hundreds of proteins in wheat; wheat is one of the top 8 food allergens in North America.  (An individual with a wheat allergy may tolerate gluten from non-wheat sources.)  Symptoms come on quickly (minutes to hours after consumption), and may include nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, itching, swelling of the lips and tongue, trouble breathing, or anaphylaxis.  The immune response also creates inflammation, which can affect the brain.

4. IgG Sensitivities (Delayed Hypersensitivity / Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity)

IgG-mediated food sensitivities are much more common that IgE reactions.  The symptoms are more varied, more subtle, and can occur hours to days after consumption; as such many people (including many MDs) do not make the link between the symptoms and food.  Symptoms of food sensitivities can include: dark circles under the eyes, puffy eyes, joint pain, runny nose, chronic ear infections, eczema or other skin conditions, sleep issues, headaches, anxiety, depression, emotional instability, irritability, and behavioural concerns (hyperactivity, poor impulse control, repetition, poor attention).

5. Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a genetic, autoimmune disorder.  In response to gluten consumption (or even topical exposure), the body mounts an immune response, which damages the lining of the intestine and severely affects absorption of nutrients. Those with Celiac disease must be hyper-vigilant in terms of gluten exposure and cross-contamination, as even the smallest exposure to gluten can cause severe damage to the body, with lifelong implications to their health.

It is predicted that up to 40% of the population carry the genes predisposing them to this condition; individuals with genetic predisposition can develop Celiac disease at any point in their lifetime.  It is estimated that approximately 83% of those individuals with Celiac disease are still undiagnosed.

Some assume that Celiac always presents with severe gastrointestinal distress; this is far from the truth.  Many Celiac individuals have subtle to non-detectable GI effects, but may have symptoms such as: fatigue, irritability, depression, hypoglycemia, migraines or chronic headaches, peripheral neuropathy, ‘fogginess’, difficulty with focusing, hyperactivity, anemia, weight loss or inability to gain weight. Interestingly, many children and adults diagnosed with ADHD may actually have Celiac disease at the root of their concerns.

How do we know if we fall under one of these categories?

If you suspect that you or your child might be reacting to gluten, or have unexplained symptoms that you hope may respond to dietary changes, then there are a number of different approaches to take.

Bring up your concerns to your MD.  The best case scenario would be that your MD is up-to-date on, and supportive with, the link between diet and physical/mental/emotional health.  He or she may suggest testing (in one or more of the areas listed above).  If you feel discouraged by your MD visit, then don’t give up.

Seek support from a Nutritionist or a Naturopath who has experience in this area. The alternative practitioner will discuss the various testing options with you, and may suggest an elimination diet.  An elimination diet will give you clear symptomatic feedback…but be sure that the elimination diet is being properly executed, and followed for a sufficient length of time. (Also keep in mind that if Celiac disease is a possibility, then this testing should be done *prior* to eliminating gluten from the diet.)

If we opt to (or are forced to!) eliminate gluten, how do we go about this?

As I’ve already mentioned, gluten lurks under many names, in countless foods.  Some of these foods are processed and our bodies will thank us for ditching them, but some are quite nutrient-dense.  So we need to not only make sure that we’re removing all of the gluten-containing foods, but that we’re proceeding with the diet in a healthful way.   Read more in my article on “The Four Factors You Need To Follow When Going Gluten Free” over at Green Moms Collective.

Will I need to be gluten-free forever?

For some individuals, such as those with Celiac disease, a gluten-free diet may be life-long.  In other cases, once underlying root causes are addressed, and gut healing work is done, gluten may be successfully reintroduced into the diet in the future.  Many people experience such an improvement in symptoms while gluten-free, that the choose not to reintroduce gluten-containing foods at all.  Your practitioner can help guide you as to which approach is best for you.

As always, I encourage you to trust your intuition.  If this information resonates with you, then take a closer look at gluten.  Pursuing testing, or starting a (well-executed) elimination diet may very well bring you some answers, and improved health and well being.

Let’s set up a time to chat.

Little B’s food journey

I’ve alluded many times to the fact that Little B has a unique diet.

But I’ve never gone into much detail about the path that brought us to where we are today, and the positive results that we’ve witness along the way.


Prior to Little B’s arrival, I was eating what I felt was a very healthful, balanced diet.

Lots of whole foods, fruit and veg, a balance of meat and non-meat proteins, wheat-free grains (spelt and kamut), limited refined sugars, some organic dairy products, and minimal packaged/processed foods.


When Little B was just a few weeks old, I noticed that he was experienced a lot more digestive distress than my older son did as an infant.  B’s diapers were sometimes mucousy, he curled his legs up to his chest a lot, was quite gassy, and was developing a diaper rash.  I knew that although these symptoms were common in babies, they were not ‘normal’ or optimal, so I began to look at my diet.  Research and intuition led me to consider DAIRY as the culprit, especially since my intake of, and desire for dairy increased during my pregnancy and postpartum.  I cut all dairy products (milk, cheese, yogurt, ice cream) out of my diet, and saw improvements within days.  (Due to the fact that dairy and soy sensitivities usually go hand-in-hand, I also removed all sources of SOY from my diet.)  He was a happier baby, and his tummy was much calmer.

By the age of 2, his sleep remained very restless, and he developed an eczema patch on his arm.  I began to suspect that another food might be at fault, and this time we trialed GLUTEN.  I adopted the Paleo style of baking, which guaranteed no gluten (instead using almond and coconut flours), dairy, or refined sugars.  Immediately the eczema patch cleared up, and his sleep showed improvement. We did, however, continue to buy some of B’s favourite foods in gluten-free versions (tortillas, bread, and crackers).

My next eye-opener was at Christmas time, when we made some gingerbread houses.  In addition to the some healthier decorations (raisins, cranberries, chocolate chips), I bought a very small amount of candy from the bulk store.  While decorating, Little B sampled one of the bright strips of candy….and proceeded to act like a wind-up toy.  He talked a ‘mile a minute’ and ran in circles until he eventually crashed from exhaustion an hour later.  So, we added FOOD DYES to the ‘no’ list!

When he was 3 year old, I was dismayed to see the eczema coming back.  He had new patches on his arms, plus a few on his tummy and back.  Unlike the previous eczema flare-up, these patches were raised, raw and itchy.  And when the redness started to fade, so did the pigmentation of his skin. A referral to the Pediatric Dermatologist gave us the diagnosis of “Vitiligo”, a condition that is thought to be autoimmune in origin.  The Dr’s only suggestion was to use an immunosuppressant cream, which had at best, a 50% chance of working.  And of course, it came with potential side effects.

In the meantime, Bennett’s moods were becoming more extreme.  He would often get ‘stuck’ in an angry state, asking the same question repeatedly, and at times getting violent.  His highs were very high, his lows were very low, and he had days when he had trouble focusing or staying still.  He was able to control his moods while at school, but they would burst forth on his days home with me.

At this point, I suspected that he was still experiencing some inflammation and gut imbalances.  Along with increasing his gut-healing foods, I decided to go GRAIN free, removing the rice– and corn-based products that we were still consuming on occasion.

As of today, Little B’s moods are much more balanced.  He is able to flow from one emotion to the next without getting ‘stuck’, and his lows and highs are less intense.  The perseverating and repetition of requests has decreased, and while he still has boundless energy, he is better able to express it in positive ways.  His eczema has healed, and some of the vitiligo spots are fading.  He is no longer bloated or complaining of tummy aches, the dark circles under his eyes have faded, and his sleep is much more restful.

Along the way, we have also used various supplements and complementary healing modalities (homeopathy, energy medicine, Osteopathy, essential oils) that have, without a doubt, aided our journey.

And it still that, a journey.

We don’t yet know if he will need a restricted diet for the long-term, or with time (and gut healing), he will be able to consume some of these foods occasionally.

But for now, we have found our ‘groove’.

In the beginning stages of each elimination, it was definitely challenging; I liken it to learning a new language.  Now, we have our go-to products and recipes.  I know how to read menus and food labels to search for the tricky ingredients.  Bennett knows to ask before eating something, and has grown comfortable with the idea that his school lunch looks different than his peers’.  He is eating a variety of healthful, tasty foods, and does not feel deprived.



And what I know for sure, is that the time, effort, and cost of his current diet is absolutely worth the positive outcome.  

Little B is a happy, healthy, thriving, amazing little boy. ♥


(Please remember, you don’t have to face this sort of journey alone.  It is *exactly* why I do what I do.  I want every child to have a chance to be their ‘best self’, and am here to help parents find their own groove…minus the overwhelm and stress.)