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What is gluten and why does it matter?

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What is it?  Generic gluten is protein in grass plants which is stored in the seed (grain) to support the growth of the next generation.  Most grains have gluten.  Examples:  corn gluten is used as a fertilizer and weed suppressor! glutinous rice is used in Thai cuisine (and some others).   The gluten that causes health problems for some is that in wheat, barley, rye and oats:  it consists of two proteins (gliadin and glutenin).  The best thing about this gluten is bread!  When these proteins are combined to make bread dough, the result is a stretchy, gluey substance.  This gluten actually traps bubbles from fermenting yeast which gives bread a light airy texture – no other glutens seem to have this property so it’s hard to find a really good wheat-gluten free bread!  (In the rest of this post, gluten refers to the wheat/barley, rye and oat variety.)

Why is this gluten a problem for some?

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  1. For some people, gluten triggers an auto-immune response called celiac’s diseases.  Normally when the gluten reaches the intestines, the proteins (gliadin and glutenin) are broken down and absorbed into the body.  However for those who have celiac’s, the body misidentifies the gliadin and attacks it, as well as the enzyme which functions to hold the gut wall intact.  Over time this can result in intestinal permeability which can allow toxins, bacteria and undigested food proteins to seep into the bloodstream – not good.  (For more detailed information, check out this article by Dr. Amy Myers.)  Symptoms of celiac’s include bloating, constipation and diarrhea, but there are many more.  It’s a serious disease which can lead to others conditions (like anemia and osteoporosis) and often to a second auto-immune disease.  If you suspect that you have celiac’s you should consult with your physician and get tested.  Let your doctor know if you are on a gluten-free diet as you may require additional tests.  If you have celiac’s you should avoid all gluten!
  2. Others may suffer gluten-intolerance or gluten sensitivity which is an innate immune response, not an auto-immune disease.  This condition is not as serious as celiac’s since it does not result in permeability of the intestinal wall.  However the symptoms are similar and may also include non-GI symptoms like “foggy” thinking,  joint pain and numbness.  There is currently no test to determine gluten-intolerance.  You may not have to give up gluten entirely, even if you have an intolerance.  Keep a food diary, eliminate gluten and start to reintroduce things slowly, carefully noticing any responses.  This may help you determine which foods are the biggest offenders and what you might be able to keep in your diet.

Why does there seem to be more celiac’s disease and gluten intolerance?  

  • It may just be diagnosed more often.  As more is learned about it, doctors can now diagnose more quickly what may have always been there.
  • Wheat has changed!  and although it is not genetically modified it has been hybridized.  In his book, Wheat Belly, Dr. William Davis argues that modern wheat may contain higher levels of gluten than previous crops, say 100 years ago.  While this is disputed, we can probably all agree that
  • Gluten shows up in lots of products.  Because of it’s textural property, it may be added to “cream” based soups and ice cream, for example.  It’s in soy sauce and “wheat free” products may include gluten from barley, rye or oats.  It’s also used as a filler in many pharmaceuticals – so you need to confer with your pharmacist to make sure you’re getting one that doesn’t include gluten!  Like sugar, gluten has many names, so you may need to do quite a lot of investigative work to determine where it may be hiding!

Should you be gluten-free?  Definitely, if you have celiac’s disease.  If you have a gluten sensitivity, you may be able to determine how much you can tolerate and adjust your diet accordingly.  Otherwise:

  • Going gluten-free means giving up a lot of nutritious foods.  Although gluten itself offers no nutritional value, the foods which contain it (whole grains) do and if you give them up, you may be low in B vitamins, calcium, iron, zinc, magnesium and fiber.
  • It’s difficult to be gluten free and it can be more expensive.   You cannot just rely on the purchase “gluten-free” foods – as mentioned above, gluten is almost ubiquitous in our food supply.  It’s also important to understand that when gluten is removed, other ingredients are often added to compensate for taste and texture – it’s often sugar and fat (not a very good trade-off.
  • Gluten has been associated with many conditions that are not related to the digestive tract, ranging from migraines to rheumatoid arthritis to autism.  Although a direct link has not been established in these,  it can’t be ruled out as a cause  and many people swear by the positive effects of eliminating or reducing gluten in their diet.  If it works for you and makes you feel better, do you need more proof?

It’s a very hot health topic these days and many products advertise “gluten-free”, but deciding to go this route deserves more consideration.  Even if you don’t suspect celiac’s or a special sensitivity, choosing healthy sources of gluten is wise – a healthy whole grain bread with high fiber and low sugar is much better for you than a soft fluffy over-processed bread with lots of added sugar and little nutritional value.   The poor sugary, high carbohydrate choices also increase inflammation which overloads the immune system which is so complicated that it’s difficult or impossible for even the most knowledgeable experts!

Bottom Line:

  •  If you have symptoms, see your physician.
  • Choose all foods carefully, including those with gluten.

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