Get Smarter About Your Diet

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Get Smarter About Nutrition

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Join thousands of faith-focused, fitness-minded men and women. You’ll get the Nikkola Newsletter each Monday and Thursday, filled with insights, tips, and articles that’ll strengthen your body, mind, and resolve.

Gluten: The Most Pervasive And Problematic Ingredient In Today’s Diet

Is a gluten-free (GF) diet healthy? What are the symptoms of gluten intolerance? What’s the difference between gluten intolerance and an allergy?

In this post, I’ll address the most common questions and areas of confusion. At a time when we’re more focused on inflammation and supporting our immune systems, going gluten-free offers only upside. Here’s why.

Gluten Allergy, Wheat Allergy, and Sensitivities

Doctors first recognized celiac disease almost 2000 years ago, but conventional medicine has only diagnosed it during the past 100 years. They also began referencing gluten sensitivity in medical papers in 1978. The first documented cases of gluten sensitivity in children appeared in the early 1980s.

Even then, most doctors shrugged off the connection between food and a patient’s health problems.

2011 was a turning point. A group of medical experts convened to discuss non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

That same year, Dr. William Davis published his book Wheat Belly. Through his writing, millions of people recognized their health issues weren’t “in their heads.” They were real. And they finally had a solution.

Just as today’s medical industry slanders doctors who don’t follow vaccine-driven dogma, they slandered Dr. Davis after he published his book. The food industry tried its best to discredit him as well.

Though Dr. Davis wasn’t the first to address these concerns, he was the first medical professional (he’s a cardiologist) to put his reputation on the line. To suggest “healthy whole grains” were something other than healthy bucked the “healthy whole grain” system. Slowly, others joined in, like Dr. David Perlmutter, publishing Grain Brain a couple of years later.

A 2015 Gallup poll showed that 20% of Americans say they choose a gluten-free diet. With one in five people attempting to eat GF, we now have gluten-free options for almost every favorite food.

So, how are celiac disease, wheat allergy, and non-celiac gluten sensitivity different from one another?

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is an immune reaction to gluten, inflames the small intestine, and breaks down its lining. It also causes the immune system to attack its own tissue. The symptoms of celiac disease take weeks to years to develop.

An antigen called a human leukocyte antigen (HLA) binds to protein fragments in cells. It then moves the attached protein fragment to the cell surface and presents it to a T-lymphocyte (T-cell).

The T-cells react to gluten like they would respond to a virus or bacteria, inflaming the intestine’s lining. Over time, the inflammation reduces the absorption of essential nutrients and causes digestive problems.

With repeated exposure and prolonged inflammation, the intestinal lining breaks down, allowing food particles to enter the bloodstream. Because food particles aren’t supposed to be in your bloodstream, your immune system reacts to them as well. Over time, you can develop sensitivities to those foods as well.

When diagnosing celiac disease, doctors test for:

  • anti-endomysial antibodies (EMA)
  • anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTG)
  • anti-gliadin antibodies (AGA).

Though celiac disease has a genetic component, gastrointestinal infections, surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, and emotional stress can activate it.

Because the gluten proteins of wheat are similar to proteins in other grains like barley or rye, those who react to wheat tend to react to other grains with similar proteins.

Wheat Allergy

Those with wheat allergies react to wheat proteins other than the gluten proteins gliadin and glutenin.

The reaction occurs in minutes to hours. Wheat allergy is a reaction to wheat proteins, other than gluten, which triggers allergy-causing antibodies. The response takes just minutes to hours to become noticeable.

Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity is not as clear-cut as celiac or wheat allergy. However, because symptoms show up within hours to days, it’s easy to connect food choices with those symptoms.

Because the exact cause of gluten sensitivity is unknown, there’s no conclusive lab test available to diagnose the condition.

Many food components, including the following, could trigger the symptoms:

  • gluten
  • alpha-amylase/trypsin inhibitors
  • fermentable oligo- and monosaccharides (also known as fructans)

If FODMAPs or fructans cause the reaction, avoiding trigger foods is much more complicated.

In fact, those on a low-carb, GF diet often end up eating more FODMAPs and fructans. Food manufacturers use them to make these foods more palatable and “healthy.” Inulin and fructooligosaccharides are the two most common in gluten-free or low-carb processed foods and bars. In essence, you could replace one trigger food with another.

Symptoms of Celiac and Gluten Sensitivity

The health complications associated with celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity are very similar.

The list of symptoms shows something striking: Most of the symptoms are not related to the gut itself. That should give you an indication as to how destructive eating gluten can be.

Symptoms and Conditions Related to Gluten Sensitivity or Allergy
HeadacheJoint Pain
Muscle PainMuscle contractions (twitches)
Numbness in limbsChronic fatigue
Foggy headednessAnemia
Difficulty breathingDepression
Abdominal painNausea
Irritable bowel syndromeMuscle wasting
Weight lossHypoglycemia
Type I diabetesPsoriasis
Gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)Skin rash
Rhinitis / asthmaIngrown hairs
Oligo- or polymenorrheaHallucinations

Looking at that list makes you wonder, “Why don’t gluten-containing foods carry a warning label?”

Effects on Your Brain

The risks of brain-related problems are reason enough to avoid gluten-containing foods. It damages the nervous system through:

  1. Inflammation, which causes tissue damage
  2. Metabolism of opioid peptides from gluten which may cause cognitive dysfunction and addiction to certain foods
  3. Autoimmune reactions which cause the body to attack its own tissue

The following are some of the documented effects of gluten consumption on your brain.

Gluten ataxia: An autoimmune disorder like Hashimoto’s. However, instead of antibodies attacking the thyroid, they attack brain cells in the cerebellum, affecting balance, speech, posture, and gait. Gluten ataxia is the most common brain-related problem with celiac disease.

Appetite stimulation: Gluten is found in most processed foods, and those foods are devoid of protein and essential micronutrients. It’s little wonder that they contribute to America’s massive obesity problem.

Brain-active exorphins: Endorphins are morphine-like substances produced by your body in response to stress, sex, and exercise. They make you feel good and reduce pain. Gluten is an exorphin, meaning it has a similar effect, but it comes from outside the body. You could feel good after eating it, even though it inflicts damage on your body.

Peripheral neuropathy: This is the second-most common nervous system-related complication of celiac disease. Unfortunately, once it develops, most people cannot get rid of it, even with a better diet.

Epilepsy: The specific cause of epileptic seizures associated with gluten is unknown. Following a GF diet helps control the onset of the seizures.

Headache: Headaches could be the result of inflammation or something gluten specifically triggers.

General cognitive impairment: These include memory problems, coming up with the right words, and reduced mental sharpness.

Dementia: In extreme cases, gluten can cause confusion, amnesia, and changes in personality.

Psychiatric disorders: In some, eating gluten-containing foods contributes to depression, apathy, irritability, attention-deficit / hyperactivity disorder, autism, and bipolar.

Effects on Your Body

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome look a lot like gluten sensitivity, celiac, or wheat allergy.

Bloating and gas: The inability to properly digest the problem food, coupled with a disruption in gut flora balance, can cause initial boating followed by gas.

Blood sugar amplifier: Gluten can exaggerate the rise in blood sugar from carbohydrates. An exaggerated blood sugar response causes an exaggerated insulin response. This means blood sugar levels will crash, causing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), which triggers more food cravings.

Synovitis: Synovitis is inflammation of the synovial joints, which causes joint swelling and pain when you move the joint. Steroid injections may provide temporary relief and reduce inflammation, but they do nothing to fix the cause. Also, corticosteroid injections can cause irreparable damage to the joint when used repeatedly.

My Hip Pain

Joint pain led me to a gluten-free diet. For two years, I hobbled around on painful hips. I was sure I’d developed arthritis in my 30s, but MRIs didn’t show any arthritis. I tried every natural product I could find. Nothing helped.

The doctor I saw prescribed NSAIDs. They brought no relief. He offered corticosteroid injections, which I declined.

I happened to spend a day with a fantastic naturopathic doctor who convinced me that gluten was causing my hip pain. I stopped eating it that day, and within days, the pain disappeared.

That was about eight years ago.

Arthritis: Arthritis is another form of autoimmune disease. It’s made worse with chronic inflammation. If you have a family history of arthritis or have started to develop it on your own, I would avoid gluten at all costs.

Heart disease: You’ve read inflammation multiple times in this article. Since inflammation contributes to heart disease, it’s no surprise that the inflammatory aspect of gluten consumption could contribute to heart disease. Research shows many of the cardiovascular issues improve through a gluten-free diet.

Nutrient malabsorption: When the intestines stop functioning correctly, they stop absorbing essential micronutrients, leading to many other health problems.

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: Hashimoto’s is the most common cause of hypothyroidism. Your body reacts to an enzyme in the thyroid gland called thyroid peroxidase (TPO). It looks, to your immune system, just like gluten. If your immune system attacks gluten, it will likely attack TPO as well.

Type I Diabetes: Another autoimmune condition, type I diabetes, has been linked to gluten consumption as a baby. Children at 18 months of age who consume just 10 grams of gluten per day had a 46% increased risk of developing type I diabetes!

Cycle disruption in women: Your gynecologist probably won’t think of gluten as the cause, but women with menstrual cycle problems who also react to gluten have seen a complete return to regular cycles with the removal of it from the diet.

I’ve had plenty more patients come through my doors and leave with a pain-free head, thanks to the adoption of a gluten-free diet.

Dr. David Perlmutter, Grain Brain

Read also: Coffee: Is it Good For You or Bad For You?

Micronutrients That Protect Against The Effects of Gluten

Antioxidants such as lycopene, quercetin, vitamin C and E, EGCG (found in green tea), and tyrosol can combat some of the oxidative effects of accidental gluten consumption. Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) from fish oil has also been shown to help reduce some of the inflammatory effects of gluten.

Haven’t People Always Eaten Gluten?

The Bible mentions wheat and bread multiple times. Other ancient texts also reference wheat as part of the diet. If people have eaten it for thousands of years, why is it all-of-a-sudden an issue?

The wheat used in food today is not the same as the wheat traditionally eaten.

Significant efforts began in the 1960s to hybridize wheat, maximizing its yield and making it more resilient to pests and the environment.

In essence, today’s wheat has a very different DNA structure than ancient wheat, like einkorn.

Some people who cannot tolerate modern wheat do fine with einkorn because of the difference in structure between them. However, research shows that those with celiac disease still react to einkorn, and should avoid all wheat entirely.

Aside from creating wheat with a much higher concentration of gluten, people’s digestive systems are also compromised more than ever before, making them more susceptible to gastrointestinal dysfunction and autoimmune issues.

Modern wheat, despite all the genetic alterations to modify hundreds, if not thousands, of its genetically determined characteristics, made its way to the worldwide human food supply with nary a question surrounding its suitability for human consumption.

Dr. William Davis, Wheat Belly

Note: When discussing modern wheat, some people mistakenly say genetically modified wheat is part of our food system. The FDA has not yet approved GMO wheat for human consumption.

Going Gluten-Free

It’s easier than ever to eat gluten-free. Most restaurants have gluten-free options, and you can find a plethora of gluten-free foods at grocery stores. So it isn’t hard to go gluten-free. You just have to commit to it.

That said, eating “gluten-free” does automatically mean eating “healthy.” Most of the foods where you’ll swap gluten-filled for gluten-free are foods like pasta, bread, crackers, chips, cookies, cereal, granola, and bagels. They’re starch…carbohydrates.

Too much starch makes you fat.

More than 70% of the population is overweight or obese, and most of those who are overweight or obese are also insulin resistant or have type II diabetes. And if there’s any controllable factor that influences your risk of an early death, or succumbing to something like COVID-19, it’s being overweight or insulin resistant.

If you’re overweight, skip the carbs, eat more protein, and spend time at the gym. Over time, you’ll earn those carbs back by building muscle, reducing your fasting blood sugar, and losing weight.

In the end, there’s no nutritional value in eating gluten, and there’s clearly plenty of risk. That’s why for me, eating GF is a nonnegotiable. And for those who are serious about their health, I believe it should be a nonnegotiable for them as well.

Read also: What You Need to Know About Gluten-Free Beer.


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