There’s a lot of talk about gluten in both the medical and lay community. It’s quite the buzz word these past few years. You know it’s a big deal when cereal boxes and packages of cookies start touting their contents as “Gluten-Free.” But what does that mean? Why is this of value?
WHAT IS GLUTEN?
Gluten is a protein composite found in common cereal grains such as wheat, spelt, barley, rye, and oats. By and large the main source of gluten in most people’s diets is WHEAT. Gluten is made up of two proteins: gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is the problematic protein.
WHAT HEALTH PROBLEMS ARE LINKED TO GLUTEN?
Because gluten triggers inflammation and immune responses, gluten sensitivity and celiac disease (when the lining of the small intestine becomes damaged and its ability to absorb nutrients is impaired due to adverse reactions to gluten) are strongly associated with a great many diseases. First of all is thyroid disease, specifically Hashimoto’s. Virtually all autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, and multiple sclerosis have also been linked to gluten consumption. Other conditions typically involve inflammatory pathways at the gut or brain level, such as irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), everyday nasal allergies, and both neurological and psychiatric disorders such as anxiety, depression, neuropathy, migraines, epilepsy, dementia, and schizophrenia. Gluten has also been linked to autism.
WHY IS GLUTEN POTENTIALLY SO PROBLEMATIC?
There are several well-founded reasons:
Gluten is a “sticky” protein. When wheat is mixed with water, gluten creates a glue-like, elastic network of cross-linked proteins. This is what allows dough to rise and become fluffy bread. Unfortunately, this sticky property of gluten causes it to “agglutinate” in the stomach. Essentially, the bread you eat becomes a ball of sticky, difficult-to-digest dough in your gut – fermenting (from the trillions of bacteria residing in your intestines) and causing bloating.
Genetic adaptation. Some people just can’t digest and assimilate wheat. If you are of European descent, there is a 30% likelihood that you have the gene for celiac disease (HLA DQ2 or HLA DQ8). Even if you don’t express that gene as full blown celiac disease, chances are you may have some form of adverse reaction from eating gluten.
“Franken-wheat.” The wheat plant of today is not what it was 50-60 years ago. Advances in genetic engineering have allowed for agricultural scientists to create hybridized strains of dwarf wheat that are hardier and higher-yielding. This means that the modern-day wheat plant has been genetically modified to be more resistant to harmful pests and extreme weather changes, and to produce greater yields per seed. The goal was to feed more of the millions of starving people in the world, and the creator of this genetically engineered wheat plant won a Noble prize. Unfortunately, it has not just fed more people, but made them sick with its twice as many gluten proteins and twice as many chromosomes (28 compared to the natural 14), that now code for new odd proteins that the body identifies as “foe” rather than friend. So the body launches an immune attack against this super wheat with its super gluten and its strange proteins. The result? Inflammation and disease.
The immune system can confuse gluten molecules with thyroid molecules. The protein structure of gluten is similar to Thyroid Peroxidase and various thyroid proteins. The scientific model of “molecular mimicry” suggests that when a person makes antibodies against gluten, they also make antibodies to other proteins that are very similar in structure to gluten, such as thyroid molecules. This means that if your body does not tolerate gluten well and “tags” it with antibodies because it is perceived as a “foe,” your body may also mistakenly “tag” and attack thyroid molecules, because it’s so molecularly similar to gluten.
HOW CAN I FIND OUT IF I AM GLUTEN-INTOLERANT?
There are two ways to determine if your health problems (allergies, arthritis, autoimmune disease, mood disorders, gastrointestinal issues, etc) are caused by or in any way triggered by gluten.
Lab TestingElimination / Challenge (Reintegration) Diet
I offer lab testing to my patients who want to cut to the chase and get clear, laboratory-based answers to how their body is responding to gluten. Tests typically check for antibodies to gliadin, specifically:
IgA anti-gliadin antibodiesIgG anti-gliadin antibodiesIgA anti-endomysial antibodiesTissue transglutaminase antibodyTotal IgA antibodies
I often provide IgG4 antibody testing for delayed (hidden) food sensitivities when checking for gluten sensitivity, because the testing is similar and patients often have multiple food triggers besides just gluten. This test has personally helped me and my children to identify hidden food triggers and to eliminate our “allergies” (hay fever symptoms). We no longer suffer from itchy, watery eyes; stuffy, runny noses; sneezing, and the general malaise and discomfort that comes with allergies. The IgG4 test also found hidden food sensitivities that could not be picked up by convential skin-prick tests and blood tests done by allergists.
ELIMINATION / REINTEGRATION DIET
If testing is not for you, a tried and true way to determine if you have any gluten sensitivity is to eliminate all gluten-containing foods from your diet for 2 to 4 weeks. Then reintroduce it. See how you feel. If you feel better while off of it, then begin to feel worse when you reintroduce gluten into your diet, then you’ll know if and how much gluten is affecting your health.
The key to success with this dietary testing is to be THOROUGH and COMPLETE with your elimination. Not one bite of a cookie, not one morsel of a sandwich, not one spoonful of oatmeal. This is because just a miniscule amount of gluten can trigger symptoms, so you need to be absolutely sure you are avoiding all sources of gluten.
Check out www.celiac.com for a list of foods containing gluten (breads, pastas, tortillas, wraps, croutons, cereals, baked goods, etc), including hidden sources of gluten that you would otherwise never have known (such as salad dressings, cosmetics, the adhesive parts of envelopes and postage stamps, etc)
I have seen many of my patients with rheumatoid arthritis experience tremendous relief upon eliminating gluten. If you or anyone you know has an autoimmune disease or chronic health complaint, I encourage you to test for gluten sensitivity, or tell them to do so. Wheat is not the health food we have been brought up to believe it is. It does more damage than good (apart from the gluten aspect, it spikes our blood sugar levels, causes fluctuations in our insulin levels, causes weight gain, increases our risk for obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and triggers inflammatory conditions). Skip the bread and go for the broccoli. Pass on the pasta and eat a sweet potato. Explore your produce! There are hundreds of options.
Eat right, live long, and prosper!
-Jamie Chan-Ortega, Ph.D., L.Ac.