To Gluten-Free or Not to Gluten-Free - That is the Question
Last week I discussed the truth behind (mass-produced) gluten-free products and what you should look for when shopping gluten-free. This week, I’ll delve further into the gluten-free controversy to uncover potential reasons why everyone is suddenly allergic to gluten and what happens when someone has the most severe reaction to gluten - a diagnosis of celiac disease.
Why is Everyone Suddenly Allergic to Gluten?
Have gluten allergies suddenly erupted like an epidemic across the country?
The real issue may not be so much an increase in gluten allergies, but may lie in one of three big misunderstandings instead.
1. There is a Real Difference between the Wheat of Today and that of the Past
Today’s wheat is genetically and biologically different than it was in the past - even compared to 60 years ago - a mere drop in the bucket of time.
It is processed and prepared differently, and treated with increasingly more powerful and dangerous toxic substances - all of which makes it less nutritious and more harmful than traditionally grown wheat.
Almost all modern wheat is now a high-yield dwarf variety, which was created through cross-breeding and genetic manipulation. Mutant seeds are grown in synthetic soils and bathed in toxic chemicals. Through these alterations, nutrients have been stripped and the wheat’s DNA changed in such a way that we can no longer digest it.
In fact, our bodies have never seen the likes of such foreign compounds before and don’t even know how to process it.
The end result? This modern wheat has been shown to negatively affect cholesterol, blood mineral content, brain function, and inflammatory markers - all of which contribute to disease.
2. We Have Underestimated Gluten Sensitivity
Until recently, there has not been a clear understanding between celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance. For the longest time, it was accepted that you either had celiac disease or you didn’t. If you were not celiac, people believed that you could not be sensitive to the effects of gluten. There was no grey area.
Additionally, the initial idea was that celiac caused severe diarrhea and cramping. So if you didn’t have severe cramping and diarrhea when you ate gluten, the assumption was that you were not celiac, you didn’t have any kind of gluten intolerance, and you were not allergic to gluten.
We now know there are different forms of celiac including “atypical” or “silent”. These forms do not present with the typical gut symptoms, yet the number of people with atypical celiac far outnumber those with typical celiac.
If a doctor only believes that celiac presents with gut issues, they may not even think about testing a patient for gluten intolerance or a gluten allergy if they have headaches, motor problems or a multitude of other issues.
In fact, if you walked into your doctor’s office with symptoms of depression, eczema, digestive issues, and brain fog or cognitive problems, what is likely to happen?
You would likely leave the doctor’s office with a prescription for an antidepressant, a steroid cream, and possibly other medications to manage other individual symptoms. You may even walk out with a referral to a dermatologist, a referral to a gastroenterologist, and maybe a referral to a neurologist or psychiatrist.
Each one of these specialists would focus on a different part of the body, and would end up playing whack-a-mole with your life. Each one would deal with only one of your symptoms in isolation. Collectively, though not intentionally, they would be preventing you from getting any closer to the root cause of your malaise. No single architect would oversee the entire process.
But what if there was one underlying cause that was leading to every one of these symptoms - like an undiagnosed gluten intolerance?
Gluten intolerance has been grossly misunderstood. It has now been associated with dermatitis (eczema), digestive upset, bone disorders, joint pain, and numerous cognitive and neurological problems. In fact, gluten has been connected to so many different and seemingly separate symptoms, that it’s hard to believe a single food protein could be responsible for so much destruction.
In this case, the root cause may, in fact, be a gluten intolerance. By simply removing processed modern wheat and gluten-containing foods from the picture, all the symptoms that seemed separate and disconnected would vanish. And more people are making this exact discovery each day.
In our current society, it may seem as though everyone has become gluten intolerant all of a sudden. It sounds crazy that so many people could be spontaneously intolerant to gluten. Yet gluten intolerance has been underestimated and often gets dismissed or misdiagnosed.
What we must realize is that there are varying degrees of this intolerance, and it is very difficult to diagnose or pinpoint. It’s more of an unsettling feeling you get after eating gluten. It may cause you to feel bloated or full, or uncomfortable and “blah”. In fact, some people may recognize these symptoms, while the majority of us will not.
It’s much easier to determine a gluten intolerance if you experience the classic symptoms of it, like severe abdominal cramping and diarrhea. However, most of us will not get these extreme symptoms. Moreover, if we eat gluten regularly, we may never connect our stomach upsets and other symptoms, like headaches, to gluten or the proteins in it.
The only way the majority of us will ever truly know, is if we give up gluten and notice symptoms ease. Then, after having given gluten up for a time, we get sick after consuming it again.
For me, after two years without gluten, I ate a crepe. It was a mindless act that I didn’t even think twice about - as is often the case with any “mindless” act. This particular crepe came from a restaurant known for their crepes. How could I not try one? So I did. And I paid for it! I was sick for 2 days - extremely sick… (I’ll spare you the gory details).
I had also been diagnosed with an autoimmune condition (hypothyroidism) years before. Since dropping modern wheat from my diet, I was able to wean myself off the daily prescription I was taking as well as the occasional NSAID I took when pain in my lower back became unbearable.
Come to think of it, since ditching the wheat, I have not had a single backache like I used to. Not a single one!
For me, I know I feel better, am healthier, and happier without gluten. My autoimmune condition is well under control, and I am medication free. For these reasons, I’ll continue my quest to eat gluten-free. For those of you with an autoimmune condition, or if you wake up with stiff joints and pain, an intolerance to gluten may be creating inflammation and contributing to that pain. You may want to consider giving gluten-free a try - you just might be surprised by how much better you feel!
3. Our Gut Health has Changed
Another reason more people may be intolerant to gluten, present with allergies to it, or have a sensitivity to modern wheat may not be entirely because our food has changed, but we have changed.
We have changed and become compromised, so our gut health has changed and become compromised, as well. Our bodies and immune systems should be resilient and able to tolerate the kinds of food proteins in wheat. But when our immune system breaks down, nothing works as well as it should, including our gut.
The purpose of our gut is to act as a selective barrier. It determines what gets in and what stays out. Everything we eat is either absorbed by the gut or eliminated. If that barrier is damaged and becomes permeable in a non-selective way, it loses the ability to make appropriate decisions about what is allowed in and what gets out. When this happens, food proteins that would otherwise be broken down into smaller particles for absorption without issue, would remain only partially digested. This will lead to the escape of larger particles through the gut wall before they have had a chance to be broken down. These larger proteins are seen as foreign invaders within the body and become the catalyst of an immune reaction.
If we have a healthy gut, the odd assault like this will not be such a problem - as in any other ecosystem. A healthy ecosystem that works together and is well-balanced, will not fall out of balance when one thing that does not belong is introduced. But if that ecosystem is fragile and a foreign species is introduced, even in small numbers, it won’t take long before it proliferates, takes over, and causes an imbalance - sometimes to the extreme.
The same phenomena happens in our gut. If we have a poor or weak microbiome, which started weakening the moment we began eating processed foods as a child, then we can easily develop a gluten intolerance or an allergy to soy, dairy, or any other food. This is why allergies are on the rise in kids, too. It’s not because someone has released a magical kind of potion into the atmosphere designed to make kids allergic to certain substances. But rather it’s because of immune dis-regulation happening due to sleep issues, food choices, stressors, and other aspects of the modern lifestyle.
Take our hunter-gatherer friends, for example. They lived in a relatively clean environment. They ate nutrient-dense good food that came from the ground or lived off it, and their microbiome thrived. They ate plenty of fermentable fibre and were healthy. If one little change happened, or a small amount of bacteria or gluten was introduced, no adverse effects resulted.
Alternatively, take a person in our modern industrialized world who is sleeping very little and has taken antibiotics - it’s not uncommon for an adult to have underwent 30 rounds of antibiotics in their lifetime. If this person was born by c-section, is living a relatively sedentary life, and eats a poor diet loaded with nutrient-poor processed and refined foods, his immune system will be seriously dis-regulated and his gut microbiome will be very imbalanced. When exposed to gluten, which might otherwise be a harmless protein, all these factors come together to create the perfect storm, and wreck havoc.
Ok. With that out of the way, let’s take a look at what happens if you are beyond being sensitive to gluten and end up with a celiac diagnosis.
The good news is that information is more readily available to you now than ever before and global awareness regarding celiac disease has increased.
What exactly is celiac disease?
Celiac is an autoimmune disease that includes a permanent intolerance to gluten. Gluten is a protein found in various wheats (like durum, kamut, and spelt), rye, barley, and triticale. When a person with celiac ingests this protein, antibodies from their own body attack and destroy the surface of their small intestine. This causes a number of symptoms that vary in severity and duration from person to person.
Generally, symptoms of celiac include:
- Indigestion and nausea
- Abdominal cramping, pain, bloating or gas
- Lactose intolerance
- Extreme weakness and fatigue
- Migraine headaches
- Bone or joint pain
- Swelling of the ankles and hands
- Recurring or persistent diarrhea
- Weight loss
- Mouth ulcers or canker sores
- Menstrual irregularities
- Infertility and even miscarriages
As many of these symptoms are similar to those of other conditions, celiac is often misdiagnosed as IBS, lactose intolerance, chronic fatigue syndrome or diverticulosis. Blood tests can screen for celiac, but only an intestinal biopsy can offer a definitive diagnosis.
Celiac develops in a person who is genetically susceptible to it. However, just because one may be susceptible to it, that does not guarantee they will end up with the disease. Many other factors must be at play simultaneously in order for it to manifest. If it does, unfortunately, it cannot be undone.
Once damage has been done to the absorptive surface of the small intestine, malnutrition, anemia, nutritional deficiencies and the risk of developing another autoimmune disease increases. The need for proper diet and lifestyle changes are paramount.
If you have been diagnosed with celiac, you may have noticed that digestive issues are not your only problem.In fact, there are 2 different mechanisms that cause problems in celiac. First, there is the autoimmune problem where the body creates antibodies against the protein in gluten. Second, there is the bystander effect. This happens when other body tissues with a similar structure to gluten are also attacked. These include the enzymes Transglutaminase 2 (T2), Transglutaminase 3 (T3), and Transglutaminase 6 (T6).
T2 is typically found in the gut. This is why many people with celiac disease present with gut problems, because the body is attacking gut tissue and breaking it down.
T3 is primarily found in the skin. This is why about 30% of people with celiac also have eczema or other skin problems, like dermatitis herpetiformis. This is basically celiac disease of the skin. It presents as blistering, extremely itchy skin with a rash - most commonly found on elbows, knees, buttocks, the back of the neck, scalp, and upper back.
T6 is found in the brain. If a person who has antibody production against T6 eats gluten, their body attacks their brain. It breaks down that T6 enzyme that has important functions in the brain, causing neurological manifestations such as ataxia or neuropathy, leading to lack of muscle coordination, weakness, numbness and pain.
This is why celiac and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are associated with a whole host of different cognitive and motor problems. Some can lead to potentially dangerous problems. This brings us back to the original question I posed - To gluten-free or not?
Need Some Help?
If you think you may have an intolerance to modern wheat or a gluten sensitivity, or you are thinking about transitioning to a life without gluten in an effort to consume less refined flour, please do it the right way. Let me help you determine if going gluten-free may be right for you - and more importantly, I can help you discover some delicious alternatives!
Effective treatment of celiac disease also requires strict exclusion of gluten for life - it must be avoided to avoid flare-ups. Consultation with a natural nutritionist is recommended to learn more about the hidden sources of gluten and how to prepare balanced, nutritious meals that are safe for you.
Make sure you are getting all the nutrients your body needs. As a natural nutritionist, I can help you create a balanced diet, free of gluten and refined sugar, to help you eat better, feel better, and take charge of your own health. Yes, even your autoimmune condition can be improved - let me help you discover the right functional foods to help make it happen.
If you are celiac or have a gluten sensitivity, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Please share your comments below. I’d love to hear from you!