The Bottom Line on Gluten – No Longer the “Staff of Life”?

Homemade Wheat BreadWhat’s the deal with Gluten?

With all the hype around “gluten-free” food, this is a question I often get. “What is the big deal?” the question goes. “People have been eating wheat for thousands of years.” They’re right, of course. Wheat is called the “staff of life” for a reason. It has been nourishing us since the dawn of civilization. Traced as far back as the ancient Egyptians, wheat has been a mainstay in the human diet. So, what happened that changed this nourishing grain into a toxin for many people?

The answer is that what we eat now is not the wheat our ancestors ate. It’s not even the wheat our grandparents ate. The wheat we grew in this country a scant 50 years ago does not even resemble the over processed, pesticide-laden, gluten packed stuff that is common throughout the western world. Most of the wheat in our current food supply is a dwarf variety that has been hybridized to have as much as 10 times the amount of gluten as its ancestors 100 years ago. This, plus the pesticides, fungicides, and over-processing over the last 50 years has made wheat almost unrecognizable from it’s original nutritious form.

In just 10 years, the numbers of reported gluten intolerance and celiac disease have seen a meteoric rise. One report found that while only 1 in 2500 people reported a gluten intolerance in 1990, the number is 1 in 133 today.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat and related grain species like spelt, rye, barley, and kamut. This grain is used as a “glue” for holding together most baked goods, as well as some candies. It is used as a thickening agent for soups, glazes, marinades and sauces. Gluten can also be found in processed deli meats, textured vegetable protein, lipstick and play-doh, among other unlikely places.

So, what’s the problem?

The problem is that gluten is difficult for many people to digest. Gluten intolerance occurs when the body reacts to gluten as it would to a virus or bacteria. It sees the protein as a foreign invader and attacks. This is called an immune response. This response creates inflammation, and inflammation causes anything from joint pain to headaches to eczema to inability to concentrate to fatigue, as well as the more commonly associated stomach pain and indigestion.

 What is the difference between a gluten intolerance and celiac disease?

A common misconception is that gluten intolerance and celiac disease are interchangeable terms. Gluten intolerance and celiac disease have a common culprit, but the way the body responds to it is different. Both conditions create an immune response in the body. The difference is that celiac disease also creates an auto-immune response, which means that the body not only attacks the foreign invader, but it also attacks itself. This results in the villi in the lining of the stomach being killed off by the body’s immune system. The villi absorb the nutrients from the food we eat, so most people with untreated celiac disease will also show signs of malnourishment.

Either way, gluten intolerance and celiac disease create major disruptions in the way your body digests food. Doctors and scientists are discovering many ways that gluten can impact your health. A newly recognized form of celiac is called behavioral celiac. This condition occurs when the symptoms tend more towards disruptive behavior, and inability to concentrate, than the more common signs of celiac, and is often misdiagnosed as ADHD.

How do I know if I’m intolerant?

Unlike celiac, there is no reliable test for gluten intolerance. The best way to find out if you are gluten intolerant is to take it out of your diet for a while and then put it back in and see how you react. A major problem is that the Standard American Diet is packed with gluten. It is in nearly all processed and fast foods because it is inexpensive and flexible. If you are intolerant, you can be having a chronic low level inflammatory response and not even know it. Maybe you are tired in the afternoon or tend to get headaches or feel bloated. Maybe you think that this is not a big deal. The fact is that this low level inflammation is the root cause of most diseases, and should be taken seriously.

The Bottom Line on Gluten

Everybody’s body is different. If you’re interested in a gluten-free diet, the very best thing to do is try it out for yourself. You may be one of the many people who discovers it improves their health, mood, and overall wellness.

I strongly recommend trying a 7-day elimination diet. Eat absolutely no gluten for 7 days, and monitor your energy level, mood, and mental clarity. On the 8th day eat a bagel (which is like eating a brick of gluten) for breakfast and see how you feel for the next 24 hours. If you find that you get that familiar headache, stomach ache, or feel sluggish, then you might have an issue with gluten and should remove it from your diet.

Need help figuring out how to go gluten-free? Take a look at my list of gluten-free diet substitutes.

If you’re interested experimenting with GF recipes, try my delicious gluten-free banana chocolate chip muffins!

photo by: Emily Carlin