By Andrea Vannelli
At Naturna, a common nutrition recommendation that we share with new clients is to avoid foods containing gluten proteins. If this is new to you, the reason behind it is that gluten is very difficult to completely digest, and thus is an irritant for the digestive system that causes inflammation for most people, even those who do not have a veritable wheat allergy. Removing it can provide a surprising amount of relief from digestive and neurological complaints like bloating, abdominal discomfort, bowel irregularity, compromised nutrient absorption, fatigue, headaches and brain fog. Gluten-containing foods make up a larger portion of our collective diet than ever before (5-20 grams per day is common). If you’re not paying attention to this ingredient, then chances are you are eating gluten daily, possibly multiple times per day, and thus living with chronic exposure. Oftentimes experimenting with an elimination diet is the simplest, most cost-effective (and convincing) method of determining food sensitivity.
Gluten is a group of proteins naturally contained in some grains, including wheat, barley, rye and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). The Latin root for gluten means “glue,” which refers to the pliable, chewy quality this protein gives to fermented doughs like bagels and bread. Glutinous grains are widely prevalent as they are the basis for most breads, cereals, pastries, pastas and beer. Wheat byproducts and gluten are also extremely common in processed foods, often in forms that are not readily identifiable as wheat, including processed meats, packaged dressings, gravies, sauces, seasonings, soups and many plant-based protein products.
The degree of gluten of sensitivity among individuals varies widely, but overall health problems related to gluten have been on the rise over the course of my lifetime. On the extreme end of the spectrum is celiac disease, which is an auto-immune condition affecting 1% of Americans. Increased gut permeability is one characteristic of celiac disease, and the intestinal lining of genetically predisposed people is severely afflicted by even tiny amounts of gluten. Although the percentage of the population that is affected by celiac disease is relatively low, the incidence of this condition has increased an average of 7.5% annually in industrialized countries for the past few decades. It’s interesting to note that even though the disease prevalence is around 1%, nearly a third of the population is estimated to have the gene for celiac disease. This strongly suggests there is an environmental component involved in the expression of this autoimmune disorder. Wheat allergy is another type of highly-reactive gluten-related condition that has many overlapping symptoms with celiac disease. Both diseases can be tested for easily with definitive results.
A less severe condition is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or NCGS), which has a prevalence of up to 6-8% in the US. Testing for NCGS is a bit less direct. One conventional marker for NCGS is the presence of anti-gliadin antibodies in response to gluten exposure—which essentially means that gluten is upsetting the immune system. Gluten consumption also causes adverse physiological changes that may not be readily apparent. To that point, another indicator of NCGS is the presence of zonulin, which is a key biomarker for intestinal permeability. In other words, there is a strong relationship between gluten sensitivity and leaky gut. It’s estimated that about 40% of people carry the genes that make them susceptible to gluten sensitivity.
Research shows that people with NCGS are more likely to develop some form of autoimmune disorder. In fact, gluten antibodies are known to be a common trigger for Hashimoto’s—the autoimmune form of hypothyroid. While an individual’s gluten antibody levels may vary over time, no level is truly normal. Once the immune system has begun to have an antibody reaction to a substance, it essentially will always be on alert for it and will mobilize against it as a perceived threat. In short, gluten creates an immediate inflammatory response in people who are sensitized to it, and prolonged exposure in a sensitized individual will eventually ramp up to an adaptive immune response with pro-inflammatory cytokines, creating a vicious cycle of inflammation. Gluten antibodies stick around for three months, so it will take some time to fully clear any symptoms from your system. After that, it is possible to heal the gut inflammation but more than likely a person who has developed an immune reaction to gluten will always have some degree of latent sensitivity and would do best to avoid it for the long-term.
More and more modern research is showing that even though a majority of people may not have been sensitized to gluten and may tolerate it well for a while, gluten itself has a damaging effect on the intestinal lining that typically takes a cumulative toll over time. Studies show exposure to the glycoproteins in gluten increases intestinal permeability in all individuals, which elevates systemic inflammation and over time predisposes us to autoimmunity. Poor gut health in general can exacerbate gluten sensitivities. If you are fortunate enough to not be genetically predisposed or to have developed an antibody response to gluten, it would be wise to be aware of its effect and to moderate consumption according to one’s personal health parameters.
How did gluten get to be so damaging? After all, wheat and other glutinous grains have been a part of human diets for centuries. It’s hard to know for certain, but here are a few reasons that may contribute. For starters, this is not your grandmother’s gluten. While wheat is technically not GMO, it has been significantly manipulated and hybridized in ways that have created new proteins by combining different strains of wheat. These new protein configurations can trigger immune reactions in humans. Secondly, there’s a general lack of traditional preparations such as soaking, fermenting and sprouting, which help to make the grains more digestible. Another reason is most of the wheat grown in the US is the hard red variety, which is higher in protein and thus contains more gluten than the soft varieties that are commonly grown in Europe. Some specialty flours like those used to make bread or pizza dough are designed to have a higher protein content (which means they contain extra added gluten) in order to make the products spongier and stretchier.
Furthermore, many processed foods modify gluten via a process called deamidation, which makes the protein more soluble and thus more versatile for food products. However, this modified gluten may also be more immunoreactive than native gluten. To make matters worse (as if that wasn’t enough!), the herbicide commonly used in wheat crops (glyphosate) binds to wheat proteins, making them appear foreign to the immune system. This higher degree of reactivity can trigger gluten sensitivity. Last but not least, glyphosate also degrades the microbiome and is known to destroy the friendly gut bacteria that help digest wheat. So there are many reasons to be aware of gluten-related issues and to curb consumption.
Avoiding all gluten forever can feel like a big sacrifice. So what are your best bets when it comes to glutinous grains? Here are a few pointers for those who are not genetically positive for gluten sensitivity, or who are managing a non-reactive state of gluten sensitivity:
- Eat only organically grown grains
- Stick with whole food versions—better yet, go for ancient grains like Kamut, spelt, einkorn and emmer, which generally are more readily tolerated and have higher nutrient profiles
- Favor traditionally prepared products, such as naturally fermented sourdough bread
- Make it a small part of your diet rather than a staple
- When you do consume gluten, add an enzyme supplement that’s designed to help break it down
- Be discriminating with gluten-free products, many of which include junky ingredients
- Follow other gut health practices to help maintain the integrity of your gut lining and microbiome
Whether you have a gluten sensitivity or not, it’s always a good idea to maintain good GI health. There are numerous modern environmental factors that degrade gut integrity, all of which are exacerbated by a stressed-out nervous system. We understand it takes some effort to incorporate this as a new habit and hope we’ve helped convince you it’s worth giving gluten-free living a try. Fortunately at Naturna, we have many tools that can help restore you to a more balanced, resilient state.
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