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