What is Gluten? Should I Eat it?

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Gluten is a protein made of two peptides – glutenin and gliadin.  It is found in the seeds of grasses like wheat, barley, rye, and some other grains.  Like most things in life – everyone reacts differently.  Generally, gluten does not cause issues for most healthy people – although no one can digest it completely (Rajagopal, n.d.).  For those with gluten sensitivity, it is a bothersome highly inflammatory compound that contributes to intestinal permeability (Myers, n.d.).

Why is gluten especially troublesome for those who are sensitive to it?  Leaky gut.  There are cells in the gut (mucosal barrier) primarily responsible for keeping us safe.  These cells are attached by tight junctions whose purpose is to keep the mucosal barrier tightly connected.  The mucosal barrier acts like a coffee filter that lets nutrients from our food in and keeps unwanted substances in our food/drinks (microbes, toxins, viruses) out. 

Consuming gluten increases the production of a protein called zonulin which increases both gut permeability and blood brain barrier permeability.  This is a problem for those of us dealing with health issues.  If we think of the tight junctions that hold the mucosal barrier cell wall together as a gate, zonulin is the key that unlocks the gate.  Unlocking the gate creates permeability in the mucosal barrier (leaky gut).  It means that harmful substances (microbes, toxins, undigested food) can cross through the compromised tight junctions and into our bloodstream (Myers, n.d.).  

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What’s interesting about gluten is that not everyone who is sensitive to it experiences digestive issues. Some experience neurological issues exclusively (due to the permeability of the blood brain barrier).  Gluten sensitivity is experienced on a spectrum. Dr. Hadjivassiliou, gluten researcher, says that gluten sensitivity can be primarily neurological, or it can cause antibodies to be made against the thyroid and a person can develop Hashimoto’s.  Gluten is the biggest contributors to thyroid autoimmunity! (Myers, n.d.). 

How do you know if gluten is an issue for you?  Let your body tell you.  Amy Myers, M.D. suggests eliminating all sources of gluten from your diet for a minimum of thirty days and then adding it back in.  If you are sensitive to gluten, and eating it daily, the body’s immune system is on alert. The immune system gets used to dealing with the assault from what it perceives as an invader.  Removing gluten will give your immune system a break and allow inflammation to calm down.  When it is reintroduced in 30 days (if you are sensitive) the reaction will be intensified. 

Food reactions can take up to three days to appear which can make it hard to connect reactions to certain foods.  You can also get tested but tests are not 100% accurate and can be expensive.  Your doctor can test you for celiac disease, and there are tests available for food sensitivities. Doing an elimination?  Watch out for common symptoms after reintroduction:

  • Digestive issues (gas, bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, and constipation)
  • Skin rashes/Eczema/Hives
  • Anemia
  • Headaches/Migraines
  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety/Depression
  • Mood changes/Irritability
  • Hyperactivity
  • Numbness in the extremities
  • Joint Pain
  • Brain fog/Trouble concentrating
  • Neurological symptoms –   neuropathy, dementia, ataxia, schizophrenia

(Clinic, 2021)

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Removing 100% of gluten is essential for those who have celiac disease, who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), have a wheat allergy, or have non celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS).  The 80/20 eating rule – eat nutritiously 80% of the time and indulge 20% of the time– does not work with gluten/wheat sensitivity.  A tiny exposure (crumb size) can cause the body to produce antibodies for 3-6 months. 

Avoid cross contamination:

  • No fries unless they are from a frier that is fries only – otherwise they may be exposed to breaded products.
  • Don’t just pick croutons out or take the bun off – order your food without them.
  • Buy certified gluten free oats (unless they say GF – they are most likely contaminated).
  • Possible hidden sources of gluten – instant coffee, spices (wheat flour is added sometimes to prevent clumping), soups, sauces, gravies, balsamic vinegar, soy sauce, malt, blue cheese (cultures contain gluten), gum, shampoo, hair products, lotions, imitation seafood, seitan.  
  • There are foods that cross-react with gluten (the body can’t tell the difference between that food and gluten).  Dairy, other grains, and corn can cross-react. 

It is best to avoid all packaged and processed foods.  Instead of replacing foods with their GF versions (that can spike blood sugar) opt for naturally GF foods:

  • Meat, Poultry, Fish, Eggs
  • Beans
  • Veggies
  • Fruits
  • Nuts

It’s too bad that not eating gluten can come with judgements.  I remind myself that if people understood that I choose not to eat it because my body attacks my thyroid when I do, they wouldn’t be as judgey.  I’d rather be well than care what someone thinks.  If you have gluten sensitivity like me (NCGS), you are not alone.  If you do not have a sensitivity…Yay!  Choosing sourdough from a starter is a healthier option than store bought products.  Pro tip…The fermentation makes it easier to digest.

Sources:

Cleveland Clinic (2021). Gluten Intolerance. Retrieved from Cleveland Clinic: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21622-gluten-intolerance

Myers, A. (n.d.). This is Your Gut on Gluten. Retrieved from Amy Myers, M.D.: https://www.amymyersmd.com/article/gut-gluten

Rajagopal, S. (n.d.). Johns Hopkins Medicine. Retrieved from What is Gluten and What Does it Do?: https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/what-is-gluten-and-what-does-it-do#:~:text=Humans%20have%20digestive%20enzymes%20that,undigested%20gluten%20with%20no%20problems.

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