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Do you know someone who has gone gluten free? Odds are you do! Adopting a gluten free diet has soared in popularity in recent years, but few know exactly what it is and how it impacts our bodies.
Fortunately, most people tolerate gluten just fine. However, there is a subset of the population in which consuming gluten can lead to significant health problems.
If you’re shopping for groceries, eating out, or attending a backyard barbecue, gluten will likely be present. There’s gluten in hamburger buns, pasta, bagels, tortillas, and most baked goods.
You’ve likely seen a variety of foods that are made for people suffering from certain food allergies. Gluten has become a common food trigger and with the rise of gluten intolerance, there’s been a significant rise in gluten free food products. Have you ever seen a food package with the term “gluten free” on it? I’d be shocked if not. Yet still, many people aren’t clear on what exactly gluten is and what makes a product gluten free.
Gluten is a type of protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. It’s an integral part of any dough and is triggered when flour is mixed with water. Gluten binds to starch particles, which gives the dough shape and elasticity. Without gluten, wheat foods such as pasta and bread would fall apart.
There are two major types of protein that fall under the category of gluten – gliadins and glutenins. These are the proteins that give bread the ability to rise and provide the “doughy” texture of quality that we know so well.
Although wheat is the biggest culprit when it comes to gluten, there are two other grains to watch out for— rye and barley. Most breads, pastas, and pastries are made from wheat flour. All varieties of wheat, rye, and barley contain gluten.
These are extremely common foods, particularly in the standard American diet. So, you can see how easy it is to be exposed to gluten every day and even at every meal.
Gluten can also be sneaky. Aside from the common food items that we normally find gluten, it’s often hidden as a thickening agent. Gluten helps thicken liquids, allows substances to bind together, and can also produce a chewy or fluffy texture. This is why it’s present in foods such as soups, sauces, biscuits, cakes, cereals, and many more.
For example, soy sauce contains gluten. So if you’re following a gluten free diet, make sure to opt for a gluten free alternative, such as tamari or coconut aminos. Even spicy or flavored corn chips may include flour or wheat in the list of ingredients. The same applies to seasoned foods, such as spice blends or anything that includes monosodium glutamate and modified food starch. Licorice-like chewy candies and batter-dipped or fried foods with bread crumbs are mostly made with wheat flour. Even some medicinal products use wheat starch as a filler additive.
Some people can eat gluten consistently without experiencing any issues, while many others can’t due to it causing an adverse reaction in their bodies. The simple reality is that most of us cannot digest gluten. This normally doesn’t cause problems in small quantities. However, the issue takes place when we ingest significant amounts of gluten in our daily meals, especially if we have a genetic predisposition to react to it.
The reason behind this is that the immune system detects undigested proteins from gluten (gliadin and glutenin) in our gut, causing an inflammatory response that can spread across the body.
The impact of gluten on your body depends on how your immune system responds to gluten. For individuals who suffer from a gluten intolerance or autoimmune disease, the effects of gluten can lead to a multitude of distressing or even debilitating symptoms.
Gluten can cause many health disorders such as celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, leaky gut or intestinal permeability.
Celiac disease is the most aggressive form of gluten sensitivity. It affects approximately 1 percent of the population. According to estimates, 1 in 133 people have already developed celiac disease. That’s more than 2 million people in the U.S. and most aren’t even aware.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body treats gluten as an enemy that’s invading its territory. Our immune system usually protects the body from toxins and disease, but if people with celiac disease consume gluten, it triggers their immune system to respond and as a result, it attacks gluten and the gut lining at the same time. This process damages the intestines, which can lead to serious and life-threatening health problems.
The damage to the intestinal lining may lead to poor absorption of several nutrients, such as calcium and iron. As a result, this may cause long-term health issues such as osteoporosis, anemia, digestive problems and an increased risk of many other diseases. This can make it tough for people suffering from celiac disease to stay healthy.
There are a lot of people who don’t have celiac disease, however, they still respond poorly to gluten. These individuals may experience most of the symptoms of celiac disease but their bodies don’t produce that immune response to gluten that is indicative of an autoimmune disease. This condition is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Gluten-sensitive people may find relief and resolution from their symptoms simply by avoiding all gluten from their diet.
There is no precise definition of NCGS, yet a doctor may diagnose NCGS once they rule out celiac disease and food allergies, yet still, the patient reacts adversely to gluten.
A new study found NCGS to be more prevalent than celiac disease. Currently, 1% of the United States population has celiac disease, however, more people are suffering from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). NCGS has been reported in almost 6% of the United States population, but it varies enormously from 0.6%-6% in general Western populations.
The prevalence of NCGS has dramatically increased in the last couple of years due to the addition of new types of wheat and other food items that include gluten. If you suffer with NCGS, adopting a gluten free diet is the key to living a healthy and happy life that is free of digestive symptoms.
Inflammation in the gut wall or intestinal lining contributes to a condition known as leaky gut or intestinal permeability. The gut has a very intricate border control system that allows digested foods and essential nutrients into your bloodstream, while keeping harmful or unnecessary substances out.
You ingest thousands of viruses, bacteria, and non-digestible particles like dust every day. When there is inflammation in the gut, it disrupts the border protection system and damages or loosens the cells lining the intestines and the space between them. This enables undigested food to pass through and trigger inflammatory reactions, while reducing the absorption of nutrients. This condition is known as leaky gut syndrome.
In addition to inflammation leading to increased permeability, gluten speeds up this cycle by triggering the release of zonulin. Zonulin is a protein that contributes to the loosening of the junctions between cells present in the intestine and gut. Inflammation and zonulin, along with wheat, have a damaging impact on intestinal permeability, which is a major issue.
Gluten can exacerbate a leaky gut. Once the gut starts to react to gluten, it’s considerably more likely that the immune system will begin reacting to other food as well. This is most often the case with dairy proteins (casein and whey), eggs, potatoes, soybeans and other grains, such as corn and rice, because they will also leak through the intestinal lining.
A person is often affected by digestive issues at this point, no matter what they eat. They may also experience fatigue, sleep problems, mood changes, skin irritation, frequent infections, thyroid problems, and, in some instances, autoimmunity.
However, do keep in mind that gluten and leaky gut do not always cause digestive problems. Research shows that at least 50% of individuals do not experience digestive issues when they react to gluten. Alternatively, they are more likely to develop neurological problems, such as depression, migraines, and insomnia.
Many people wonder why gluten has such a bad reputation and whether or not they should opt for a gluten free lifestyle. If you’re experiencing trouble with gluten or think gluten may be the culprit causing your digestive issues, adopting a gluten free diet will help you discover whether you feel better without eating wheat.
If you decide to go gluten free, try to incorporate naturally gluten free foods rather than processed foods stripped of gluten. You can include legumes, fruit, vegetables, eggs, nuts, meats, and gluten free whole grains such as rice, quinoa, millet and corn.
When on a gluten free diet, you can still get the right amount of vitamins and minerals by choosing healthier options and enjoying whole, unprocessed foods. I suggest eradicating gluten from your diet for a short period of time, taking note of whether your symptoms improve, and then introducing it back into your diet to evaluate whether gluten is truly the culprit.
If you’re experiencing chronic digestive or mental symptoms, gut issues, or an autoimmune condition, a gluten free diet can be super beneficial.
"When it comes to balancing our body, healing the gut, reversing autoimmunity, and achieving optimal health—we are a lot like a car that won’t run right. In order to fix the problem once and for all instead of relying on jumper cables, we must get underneath the hood, run the diagnostics, and replace the battery so that it runs good as new."
-Nikki Yelton, RD
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