There is a lot of buzz around gluten intolerance and celiac disease these days, so I figured it would be informative and fun to dive a little deeper into the real issues surrounding gluten.
As well, as a nutritional practitioner, it is important to always be aware and able to recognize a client’s symptoms and understand how they may relate to different food allergies or sensitivities.
This blog will cover the definition of gluten, the difference between gluten sensitivity and a gluten allergy, explanations why these problems may be on the rise, and healthy alternatives to this grain!
What is Gluten?
Gluten is the lectin protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, spelt and rye, which is incredibly hard for the body to digest.
The digestibility of gluten may be a bigger problem for some individuals than others, and blood type plays a large role in determining our body’s ability to digest gluten.
In sensitive individuals, especially blood type O individuals, gluten has an agglutinating effect, literally meaning “glue-like” effect on the cells of the body, specifically the villi in the small intestine. This causes substantial pain, inflammation and irritation to the lining of the digestive tract.
Many individuals will respond differently to gluten, and this often determines the severity of the sensitivity or intolerance.
The symptoms/effects of eating gluten can include: gas, bloating, headaches, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, irritability, and increased cravings for more sugar and carbs.
What is the difference between a person with gluten sensitivity compared to a gluten intolerance (or Celiac Disease)
What is gluten intolerance (allergy)?
Gluten intolerance signifies an actual immune-mediated response, triggered when dietary gluten enters the body of susceptible individuals. A food allergy is an immediate reaction to food that is triggered by IgA antibodies. In the case of gluten as the allergen, this is termed celiac disease.
The auto-immune reaction triggers the process of agglutination, where antibodies in the blood view gluten as a foreign invader. This essentially glues the gluten together to be removed by the body but causes inflammation and destruction of local cells, especially the villi in the small intestine which are responsible for nutrient absorption.
Gluten also stimulates ZONULIN, a protein that increases gut permeability which opens up the tight junctions that normally protect the small intestine of bacteria and undigested food. This also causes a heightened immune response to the gluten.
If left untreated, celiac disease significantly increases the risk for certain cancers, osteoporosis, malnutrition and neurological conditions such as depression
What is gluten sensitivity?
A gluten sensitive person will still have an increased immune response to gluten but is not as elevated as it would be in a person with an auto-immune mediated reaction to gluten. In other words, food sensitivities are delayed reactions to specific foods that are triggered by IgG antibodies (compared to a true allergy which is mediated by IgA antibodies). Ensuring you receive the right test is crucial to determining whether you have a true allergy to gluten, or if your immune system is overly sensitive to gluten.
Why have gluten sensitivities and intolerances increased so much over the last several years?
There are a few different reasons why gluten sensitivities and intolerances are on the rise.
GMOs: Firstly, since the 1950’s, all wheat, even organic wheat (According to the book Wheat-Belly), has been genetically modified. Instead of containing its 14 original chromosomes, it now has a whopping 42! This makes the GMO grain hard for the body to digest.
In other words, the gluten content of the stains of genetically modified wheat contains five times more gluten than their non-hybridized ancestors.
UNSPROUTED GRAINS: Secondly, un-sprouted grains such as wheat have anti-nutrients present in them, inhibiting their digestibility, and also the body’s ability to absorb calcium, magnesium, iron, and zinc.
WESTERNIZED DIETS: Thirdly, the frequency of celiac disease is increasing in many developing countries as their diets are becoming more westernized and consuming more GMO wheat products
What are the Alternatives to Gluten Containing Foods and are they any Healthier?
The food industry has made millions of dollars capitalizing on the advertisement of “Gluten-free foods”, but this does not necessarily mean they are healthy. Many of these alternatives contain ingredients such as potato starch, cornstarch and rice starch, which have high glycemic indexes and can even lead to weight gain.
Better alternatives would therefore be, quinoa, an amazing grain and complete source of protein, as well as coconut flour, high in fiber and incredibly low on the glycemic index scale.
So what’s the take-home message?
You must now be asking yourself, so what do I do?! Do I eat gluten, or do not eat gluten?
If it were up to me, the answer would always be no! Simply because nearly ALL wheat crops are GMO and extremely hard for the body to digest.
However, if you ARE going to eat gluten, safety tips include:
Sprout your grains or buy sprouted grains to make them more easily digestible
Limit their overall consumption
Take an L-Glutamine and zinc supplement to rebuild the cells on the small intestine so they replicate and decrease the likelihood of excessive permeability due to digestive damage
Taking a probiotic can also be extremely beneficial as they help to control inflammation in the body, which is definitely happening in someone with a gluten allergy or sensitivity. A probiotic can also strengthen the lining and function of the colon which helps protect the mucosal barrier from the invasion of harmful invaders/organisms from getting into the bloodstream.