Nearly a third of Americans are trying to eliminate gluten from their diets (1) because they believe it is negatively impacting their health.
Public awareness about the potential effects of gluten has grown rapidly over the past few years with the spotlight on study results showing how the proteins most commonly ingested through wheat and other grains may be undermining our desire to feed ourselves in a way that feels good and keeps us healthy.
You’ve probably noticed more gluten free options in restaurants and supermarkets, and you may even be avoiding gluten yourself, or at least wondering if it may be causing problems for you.
There’s a lot of conflicting information floating around about gluten, so let’s get the basics straight first.
A protein composite found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt and certain other grains, gluten contains both glutenin and gliadin. Most people with gluten sensitivities have adverse reactions to gliadin.
The term gluten is derived from the word “glue,” which accurately describes how these proteins act when combined with liquid. Gluten facilitates the elasticity of bread dough, holding the separate components together as it rises, bakes and falls fragrantly away from the knife or slicer.
Only 1% of the population experiences gluten sensitivities and reactions severe enough to classify as celiac disease, with symptoms ranging from anemia and fatigue to nutritional deficiencies and a doubled risk of death from other diseases. (2)
Many suffering from celiac disease go undiagnosed; some don’t have symptoms, but experience a host of seemingly random health issues.
Here’s what happens with those who suffer from celiac disease:
- Gluten in the digestive tract may be mistaken by the immune system as a foreign substance
- A defensive attack is mounted to protect the body from invaders
- In celiac reactions, the immune system attacks both gluten proteins and an enzyme in digestive tract cells called tissue transglutaminase
- Escalated response can turn into an autoimmune disease that results in deterioration of the intestinal walls, causing significant perforations in the gut
- Undigested food substances leaking into the bloodstream from damaged intestinal tissue can lead to further damage, spiral the body into a cyclic reaction of heightened immune response
- Energy and resources are diverted to handle the emergency, weakening the system and creating ongoing vulnerabilities and malfunctions
Since the standard American diet focuses heavily on foods containing gluten, much more than 1% of the population may be experiencing adverse effects from everyday fare. (3)
The Process of Elimination
If you’re dealing with unexplained symptoms, you may be wondering if gluten is a problem. Some sources report that between 6 – 8% may be gluten sensitive based on gluten antibodies found in the blood. (4)
It is also possible to test stool samples for gluten antibodies, which can show indications of intestinal damage as well. (5)
True celiacs are twice as common in the elderly population, but up to 40% of us carry genes designated as HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQA, both of which increase the likelihood of developing gluten sensitivities. (6)
Those diagnosed with celiac disease diagnosis are not the only ones whose health can be devastatingly impacted by gluten. Some medical problems often associated with gluten intolerance or sensitivity include:
- Stomach aches and/or bloating
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Intestinal inflammation
- Joint or bone pain
Since there is not yet a definitive testing procedure to identify sensitivities, the best way to pinpoint gluten tolerance is to eliminate all foods containing gluten from your diet and pay attention to how you feel.
After a week or two, reintroduce gluten and see how you react. Be alert for any and all changes.
Watch Those Brain Cells
According to researchers at Harvard Medical School, the brain and gut are intimately connected. (7)
Discovering and addressing gluten sensitivity early can help protect brain function and cut your risk of developing serious neurological disorders.
Gluten sensitive idiopathic neuropathy refers to neurological illnesses that can be caused or made worse by gluten intolerance.
In one study of 53 patients suffering from neurological symptoms of unknown origin, more than half tested positive for gluten antibodies in the blood. (8)
Cerebellar ataxia, which damages the cerebellum, is associated with cases of gluten intolerance, and results in problems with speech and motor controls that affect balance and movement. (9)
Epilepsy has long been treated with ketogenic diets, which are very low in carbohydrates and affect electrical activity in the brain. Gluten intolerance could also be part of the equation; researchers have found some patients experience fewer seizures in the absence of gluten-containing foods. (18, 19, 20)
If you’ve ever had trouble keeping your hands out of the bread basket when you know you’ve had enough, you won’t be surprised to learn wheat is hot on the heels of sugar for triggering food-related addictive responses.
Breaking down gluten in a test tube yields peptides than can activate opioid receptors. (21)
Scientists studying these processes with animals believe there’s a possibility these gluten exorphins may find their way into the bloodstream (perhaps through damaged intestinal walls) and result in addiction. (22, 23)
Better Safe Than Sick
An autoimmune disorder is any set of circumstances that cause the body to attack part of its own system. This is what happens with celiac disease, the most severe reaction in cases of gluten intolerance.
Autoimmune diseases affect about 3% of the population, (24) jacking up the risk for developing other immune disorders like arthritis, lupus, type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis and Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. (25)
Summary: Even if full-blown celiac disease isn’t on your radar, gluten sensitivity or intolerance can wreak havoc on a whole spectrum of body systems and result in serious health problems. No two reactions may be quite alike, but if you suspect gluten may be causing problems for you, don’t wait to explore the possibilities.