Is gluten really that bad for your health, or have people made a bigger deal out of eating it than necessary?
The answer might surprise you. While there is no health benefit to eating it whatsoever, there are a number of reasons you might want to avoid eating it.
The good news is, when you decide to get rid of gluten, there’s still a lot of good food you can eat. Nobody should feel deprived when they go gluten-free.
Here’s what you need to know about gluten, and why it’s best to avoid it.
Gluten Concerns Centuries Old
Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a Greek physician, described and named celiac disease in the first century. Celiac disease is a severe digestive problem caused by consuming gluten, a group of proteins found in some grains and seeds, including wheat.
Unfortunately, few people paid much attention in the millennia that followed. Smallpox, plagues, polio, rickets, and war posed more significant health risks during that time.
Although celiac disease has been observed for almost 2,000 years, and modern medicine has recognized gluten allergies for at least 100 years, it wasn’t until 1978 that gluten sensitivity was discussed in medical papers.
The first documented cases of gluten sensitivity in children appeared in the early 1980s. Even then, most doctors shrugged off the connection between food and a patient’s health problems.
2011 was a turning point.
A group of medical experts convened to discuss this nonceliac gluten sensitivity.
It was also the year William Davis, MD, published his book Wheat Belly. Millions of people resonated with the book, recognizing their symptoms in Davis’s text. They felt like they’d finally found an answer for how they felt.
The food industry wasn’t as appreciative, though. With the majority of products in grocery stores containing gluten, it did its best to discredit him.
Not only did the food industry fire back at Davis, so did the medical community. As a cardiologist, he bucked the “healthy whole grains” message that had been part of nutrition recommendations for so long.
In the end, their collective efforts backfired. Wheat Belly became a best-seller. It’s still among my top five most-recommended health and fitness books.
Eventually, other health and fitness influencers joined in, including David Perlmutter, MD, who published Grain Brain a couple of years later. Today, a search for “Gluten Books” on Amazon returns over 9,000 results.
A 2015, Gallup poll showed that 20 percent of Americans said they choose a gluten-free diet. Oddly enough, 17 percent of Americans in the poll said they avoid gluten-free foods. I thought that was funny. Like adults avoiding vegetables or something.
Haven’t People Always Eaten Gluten?
The Bible mentions wheat and bread multiple times. Other ancient texts also reference wheat as part of the diet. If people have eaten it for thousands of years, why is it an issue all of the sudden?
Because the wheat used in food today is different from traditional wheat.
Wheat hybridization began in the 1960s. This maximized yield and made it more resilient to pests and environmental stress. Today’s wheat has a very different DNA structure than ancient wheat, like einkorn. This new wheat also has a higher concentration of gluten.
Some people who cannot tolerate modern wheat do fine when eating einkorn. However, research shows that those with celiac disease still react to einkorn and should avoid all wheat entirely.
Modern wheat, despite all the genetic alterations to modify hundreds, if not thousands, of its genetically determined characteristics, made its way to the worldwide human food supply with nary a question surrounding its suitability for human consumption.William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly
When discussing modern wheat, some people mistakenly say genetically modified wheat is part of our food system. This statement is not true: The FDA has not yet approved GMO wheat for human consumption.
Celiac vs. Gluten Sensitivity
How are celiac disease, wheat allergy, and nonceliac gluten sensitivity different from one another?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that causes an immune reaction to gluten, which inflames the small intestine and breaks down its lining. It also causes the immune system to attack its own tissue. The symptoms of celiac disease take weeks to years to develop.
An antigen called a human leukocyte antigen (HLA) binds to protein fragments in cells. It then moves the bound protein fragment to the cell surface and presents it to the immune system’s T-lymphocyte.
The T-cells examine the proteins, looking for viruses and bacteria. They are like a father who sizes up his daughter’s date, deciding whether or not he presents a threat to his little angel.
In the case of celiac disease, the T-cells react to gluten like it would a virus or bacteria, inflaming the lining of the intestine. Over time, the inflammation reduces absorption of essential nutrients and causes digestive discomfort and problems like chronic diarrhea.
With repeated exposure and prolonged inflammation, the barrier between the small intestine and the bloodstream breaks down, allowing food particles to enter the bloodstream. Those food particles aren’t supposed to be there, so the immune system reacts to them as well.
Eventually, you might develop sensitivities to other foods as your body learns to attack them in the bloodstream.
Though celiac disease has a genetic component, gastrointestinal infections, surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, and emotional stress can all activate it.
The tests to confirm celiac disease include anti-endomysial antibodies (EMA), anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTG), and anti-gliadin antibodies (AGA).
Wheat allergy is a reaction to wheat proteins, other than gluten, which triggers allergy-causing antibodies. The reaction takes minutes to hours to become noticeable.
Nonceliac Gluten Sensitivity
The actual cause of gluten sensitivity is unknown. Symptoms show up within hours to days, so it can initially be difficult to pinpoint the cause.
But you can often track symptoms back to foods you ate. You can also identify gluten sensitivity through an elimination diet program like GUT.FIX. Because the exact cause is not a definite, there’s no conclusive test for gluten sensitivity.
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity are similar to celiac. However, the food component that causes the symptoms may or may not be gluten. It could also be alpha-amylase/trypsin inhibitors, FODMAPS, or fermentable oligo- and monosaccharides, also known as fructans.
Unfortunately, if FODMAPs or fructans cause the reaction, avoiding trigger foods is much more complicated.
In fact, those on a low-carb, gluten-free diet often end up eating more FODMAPs and fructans, because low-carb and gluten-free food manufacturers use them to provide sweetness, fiber, or other health benefits. Two of the most commonly used are fructooligosaccharides and inulin.
It’s possible that many people get rid of one trigger food and replace with another that’s an even more significant trigger.
Read Also: What You Need to Know About Digestive Enzymes.
Symptoms of Celiac and Gluten Sensitivity
The health complications associated with celiac disease, wheat allergy, and nonceliac gluten sensitivity are all very similar.
Surprisingly, a large percentage of those with gluten issues do not have digestive-related symptoms. Instead, they display some of the psychological issues and end up misdiagnosed by a doctor.
|Muscle pain||Muscle contractions (twitches)|
|Numbness in limbs||Chronic fatigue|
|Irritable bowel syndrome||Muscle wasting|
|Type 1 diabetes||Psoriasis|
|Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)||Skin rash|
|Oligo- or polymenorrhea||Hallucinations|
When I look at this list, I can’t help but wonder how long it’ll be before a package of wheat bread comes with a warning label.
Gluten and Your Brain
Gluten can damage the nervous system a few different ways:
- Inflammation, which causes tissue damage
- Opioid peptides from gluten, which may cause cognitive dysfunction and addiction to gluten-containing foods
- Autoimmune reactions, which cause the body to attack its own tissue
The following are some of the documented conditions connected to gluten consumption.
Gluten ataxia: An autoimmune condition similar Hashimoto’s thyroiditis. However, instead of antibodies attacking the thyroid, they attack brain cells in the cerebellum, affecting balance, speech, posture, and gait. Gluten ataxia is the most common brain-related problem with celiac disease.
Appetite stimulation: Have you ever noticed that your belly can feel stuffed, yet you still crave certain foods? Gluten can have that effect on some people.
Brain-active exorphins: You’ve probably heard of endorphins — they’re morphine-like substances produced by your body in response to stress, sex, and exercise. They make you feel good and reduce pain.
Gluten is an exorphin, meaning it has a similar effect on the body, but it comes from outside the body. You might temporarily feel good even though the gluten could be damaging your body.
Peripheral neuropathy: The second-most common, nervous system-related complication of celiac disease. Unfortunately, once it develops, adopting a gluten-free diet doesn’t seem to eliminate the neuropathy.
Epilepsy: The specific cause of epileptic seizures associated with gluten is unknown. Following a gluten-free diet can help control the onset of the seizures.
Headache: With all the other ways gluten affects the nervous system, it’s not surprising that headaches are common among those with celiac disease.
General cognitive impairment: Memory problems, including coming up with the right words, and reduced mental sharpness.
Dementia: In more extreme cases, gluten can cause confusion, amnesia, and changes in personality.
Psychiatric disorders: Depression, apathy, irritability, attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder, autism, and bipolar and eating disorders are connected to gluten consumption.
Gluten and Your Body
The following are documented effects of gluten on your body.
Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome could look a lot like nonceliac gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, or wheat allergy.
Bloating and gas: The inability to properly digest the problem food, coupled with a disruption in gut-flora balance, can cause initial boating followed by gas.
Blood-sugar amplifier: Gluten can exaggerate the rise in blood sugar from carbohydrates. An exaggerated blood-sugar response causes an exaggerated insulin response as well, which means blood-sugar levels will crash harder than normal, causing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).
Synovitis: Inflammation of the synovial joints, causing pain when the joint is moved, and swelling of the joint. Steroid injections may provide temporary relief and reduce inflammation, but they do nothing to fix the cause. In addition, corticosteroid injections can cause irreparable damage to the joint when used repeatedly.
Joint pain led me to a gluten-free diet. For two years, I hobbled around on painful hips. I was sure I’d developed arthritis in my 30s, but MRIs didn’t show any arthritis. I tried every natural product I could find. Nothing helped.
The doctor I saw prescribed NSAIDs. They brought no relief. He offered corticosteroid injections, which I declined.
I happened to spend a day with a fantastic naturopathic doctor who convinced me that gluten was causing my hip pain. I stopped eating it that day, and within days, the pain disappeared.
That was about 10 years ago.
Arthritis: Arthritis is another form of autoimmune disease that’s made worse with chronic inflammation. If you have a family history of arthritis or have started to develop it on your own, consider avoiding gluten at all costs.
Heart disease: You’ve read “inflammation” multiple times in this article. Since inflammation contributes to heart disease, it’s no surprise that the inflammatory aspect of gluten consumption could contribute to heart disease. Research shows many of the cardiovascular issues improve through a gluten-free diet.
Nutrient malabsorption: When the intestines stop functioning correctly, they stop absorbing essential micronutrients, which can lead to many other health problems given enough time.
Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: The most common cause of hypothyroidism. Your body reacts to an enzyme in the thyroid gland that, to your immune systems, looks just like gluten. Since it’s been trained to attack gluten, it also attacks the thyroid enzyme. So if gluten becomes an immune-system trigger, your thyroid gland can become one as well.
Type 1 diabetes: Another autoimmune condition, type 1 diabetes has been linked to gluten consumption as a baby. Children at 18 months of age who consume just 10 grams of gluten per day were shown to have a 46 percent increased risk of developing type 1 diabetes.
Menstrual cycle disruption in women: Your gynecologist probably won’t think of gluten as the cause, but women with menstrual-cycle problems who also react to gluten often see a complete return to normal cycles with the removal of gluten from the diet.
I’ve had plenty more patients come through my doors and leave with a pain-free head, thanks to the adoption of a gluten-free diet.David Perlmutter, MD, author of Grain Brain
It’s easier than ever to eat gluten-free — you just have to commit to it. Most restaurants have gluten-free options, and you can find a plethora of gluten-free foods at grocery stores.
That said, “gluten-free” does not equal “healthy.” Most of the foods in which you swap gluten-filled for gluten-free are things like pasta, bread, crackers, chips, cookies, cereal, granola, and bagels. They’re starch — or carbohydrates.
More than 70 percent of the population is overweight or obese, and most of those who are overweight or obese are also insulin resistant or have type 2 diabetes. That means they need to severely limit carbohydrate intake, even if the carbs they are consuming are gluten-free.
The core of a healthy diet is animal protein and nonstarchy vegetables.
The higher your body-fat levels are, the more you need to restrict carbohydrates to get healthy and lean. Protein and vegetables are essential. Carbs should be earned.
You’ll also find gluten in sauces and spices, binders, and many other packaged food items that aren’t as obvious as bread and pasta. It takes a little label reading to know what to look for.
Antioxidants such as lycopene, quercetin, vitamin C and E, EGCG (found in green tea), and tyrosol can combat some of the oxidative effects of accidental gluten consumption. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from fish oil has also been shown to help reduce some of the inflammatory effects of gluten.
However, as of yet, there is nothing you can add to your diet or supplement plan to eliminate the effects of regular gluten consumption.
Our recommendation: Avoid gluten as much as possible. If you’ve never removed it before, our coaching team recommends taking it out completely for four weeks so you can really pay attention to any differences. And at the same time, you can focus on filling your plate full of the foods you were designed to eat that are naturally free of gluten.