Not so many years ago, the gluten-free lifestyle was reserved for an obscure cluster of people who were forced to settle for wannabe foods that resembled sawdust but didn’t taste as good. I know because I was one of them. I have been gluten-free since 2005. But, today I have lots of company. The gluten-free movement is sweeping the nation for lots of reasons, but the one that stands out is that when people give up gluten, they feel better!
Before I go into what gluten is I have a few questions for you.
- Do you know anybody with gluten intolerance?
- Do you know about its health implications or how many people are affected?
- Have any of you noticed the plethora of gluten-free foods on the shelves of your local grocery store?
- Have any of you tried any gluten-free products?
- Did you know that gluten is in body care products like lotion, shampoo, makeup, and toothpaste?
I’m going to talk about gluten and what it is, I will define gluten sensitivity, I will talk a little bit about who is at risk for it, and I will discuss the serious health consequences caused by consuming gluten, especially when someone is Celiac or has Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) which is now a medical term.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a collection of proteins (namely the long amino-acid chains gliadins and glutenins) that act as the “glue” to make bread rise and give baked goods and processed foods that delectable texture. Gluten is virtually everywhere. Not only is it found in the obvious suspects such as baked goods. It’s also hidden in many processed foods as binders, starch, and fillers. As far as gluten content in grains goes, wheat contains the most gluten. Other common gluten-containing grains are barley, rye, bulgar, and spelt. Agricultural changes to wheat have boosted its protein content dramatically and our bodies were not designed to handle the high quantity of gluten found in today’s foods. And if you look back when wheat was first cultivated, about 10,000 years ago, it was new to the evolutionary food chain for humans, really a mass nutritional experiment – we did not naturally evolve as wheat eaters.
WHY? Does gluten sensitivity, also called gluten intolerance, or Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) currently estimated to affect 81% of Americans?
Bottom line, according to the experts, humans cannot fully digest gluten.
Gluten sensitivity can appear at any age.
- It often shows up when a child is first introduced to cereal foods.
- or can be triggered by:
- Emotional stress, illness, or physical trauma (such as surgery or pregnancy)
Do you know what happens to someone like myself that has a problem with gluten?
- When gluten is consumed, it frequently causes the immune system to react as if gluten is the bad guy, or a toxin even if you are not Celiac.
- This can cause an autoimmune response, where the body is unable to distinguish gluten from normal body tissues, thus going out to destroy both: causing inflammation and damage. Specifically, the body attacks the micro-villi on the lining of the small intestine:
- Micro-villi are like tiny fingers that increase the surface area of the small intestine so it can absorb and assimilate nutrients from the food we eat.
- Antibodies triggered by gluten cause villi to get glued down (flatten is the most commonly used word), sometimes becoming completely flat (antibodies are molecules that destroy bacteria, viruses, or other harmful toxins)
- Once they become flattened, the villi no longer are able to absorb nutrients that are vital for good health
- As you can imagine, this goes on to impact the entire body – such as the liver, skin, hair, glandular system, and even the brain!
- This is why gluten reactions vary wildly and symptoms often seem unrelated.
Don’t worry! This story has a happy ending! The villi are tenacious little things, and when you quit eating gluten, they begin to heal right away. Before you know it, the villi will grow back and absorb nutrients again.
I came to find out I have a gluten issue even though my test results were both positive and negative because:
- I continued to lose weight, even though I had a huge appetite.
- I became anemic and was not absorbing vital nutrients.
- I had to make frequent and unexpected trips to the bathroom.
- Experienced stomach pains, cramps, and socially embarrassing consequences.
- I had a difficult time focusing, concentrating, and sleeping.
- And the worst, I started losing my hair in clumps!
Food is supposed to give us energy and make us feel good. But when we eat things our body can’t process, it sometimes has a not-so-subtle way of telling us to knock it off by causing gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea – even things that don’t seem associated with the GI tract, like headaches, fatigue, depression, joint pain, nosebleeds, hair loss, mouth ulcers, and respiratory distress.
Those – and about 250 others, are symptoms and conditions of gluten sensitivity:
- They go on to include autoimmune diseases (such as Type I Diabetes, Crohn’s, and Addison’s)
- Mood disorders (such as ADD, Autism, and Bipolar)
- Nutritional deficiencies (such as Anemia, Osteopenia, and Osteoporosis)
- Neurological conditions (such as neuropathy, migraines, seizures) –
The list is impressive, isn’t it?
- The idea that eliminating one thing from your diet – gluten – could improve so many different conditions is almost hard to believe!
- Yet, it’s true – and it really makes sense when you realize what it’s doing to your body - your body’s going to scream in lots of different ways.
- Cutting out gluten is the most reliable way to determine if you are sensitive to the protein - And if you are sensitive, it’s the only treatment – for life!
Plenty of foods are naturally gluten-free
- Such as fruits, vegetables, meats, eggs, nuts, seeds, legumes, corn, and rice.
- And again, other grains and flours that are gluten-free are included in the list I gave you.
- These days, Food manufacturers make delicious gluten-free versions of just about every food imaginable!
Truly, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Changing the way you eat is neither quick nor easy, but the benefits of going gluten-free can be fantastic – and no surgery or medication is required!