Gluten and Going Gluten-Free: What You Need to Know

Nutrition

In my opinion, the potential health complications from a lifetime of eating gluten are no less severe than those from smoking cigarettes.

Just as you can’t negate the effects of smoking by taking a supplement or saying your prayers, you won’t offset the impact of gluten with corticosteroid shots, NSAIDs, essential oils, fasting, or good intentions.

I can’t confidently say that everyone who eats gluten for a lifetime will end up with one of the problems mentioned in this article, any more than a smoker is guaranteed cancer or emphysema.

However, just because some people might make it to the end of a very long life, smoking a cigarette with their final breath, it doesn’t mean it’s a good idea to bet on a healthy outcome.

The same could be said for eating gluten. The good news is,  when you decide to get rid of gluten completely, there’s still a lot of good food you can eat. Nobody “struggles” when they go gluten-free.

Gluten Concerns Centuries Old

Based on the hype, you’d think concerns about gluten were relatively new. However, they were observed long before the age of the internet.

In fact, Aretaeus of Cappadocia, a Greek physician, described and named celiac disease in the first century. He didn’t get much attention though. Over the past couple millennia, smallpox, plagues, polio, rickets, and war were of a much more significant health concern than gluten.

Although celiac disease has been observed for almost 2000 years and doctors have recognized it for at least 100 years, it wasn’t until 1978 that gluten sensitivity was discussed in medical papers. 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 this non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

It was also the year Dr. William Davis published his book Wheat Belly Millions of people resonated with the book. They recognized themselves in Dr. Davis’ writing, and finally had some answers to how they felt. No longer did they need to feel like their symptoms were “all in their head.”

The food industry wasn’t as appreciative of his book and did its best to attack and condemn him. Their efforts backfired, though. Each time they tried to discredit his work, it only helped to fuel more book sales and attention. In fact, Wheat Belly is still among my top five most-recommended health and fitness books.

Though Dr. Davis wasn’t the first to address concerns about gluten, 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, sort of bucked the “healthy whole grain” system.

Slowly, others joined in, like Dr. David Perlmutter, publishing Grain Brain a couple of years later. Today, a search for “Gluten Books” on Amazon returns over 9000 results.

As of 2015, a Gallup poll showed that 20% of Americans say they choose a gluten-free diet. With one in five at least attempting to eat gluten-free, the food industry responded, providing hundreds of new products without gluten.

Oddly enough, 17% of Americans in the poll said they avoid gluten-free foods. I thought that was funny. Like adults avoiding vegetables or something.

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 the two types of wheat. 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.

Celiac vs Gluten Sensitivity

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

Celiac disease is an immune reaction to gluten, which 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.

Nerd alert! The next couple paragraphs are a little more technical than the rest of the article. 

An antigen called a human leukocyte antigen (HLA) binds to protein fragments in cells. It then moves the bound protein fragment to the cell surface and presents it to the immune system’s T-lymphocyte. The T-cells examine the proteins, looking for viruses and bacteria.

They are like a father who sizes up his daughter’s date, deciding whether or not he presents a threat to his little angel.

In the case of celiac disease, the T-cells react to gluten like it would a virus or bacteria, inflaming the lining of the intestine.

Over time, the inflammation reduces absorption of essential nutrients and causes digestive discomfort and problems like chronic diarrhea.

With repeated exposure and prolonged inflammation, the barrier between the small intestine and the bloodstream breaks down, allowing food particles to enter the bloodstream. Those food particles aren’t supposed to be there, so the immune system reacts to them as well.

Eventually, you might develop sensitivities to other foods as your body learns to attack them in the bloodstream.

The tests to confirm celiac disease include anti-endomysial antibodies (EMA), anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTG), and anti-gliadin antibodies (AGA).

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

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

Gluten sensitivity is not as clear-cut as celiac or wheat allergy. However, symptoms show up within hours to days, so it’s easy to connect food choices and symptoms to determine a cause for how you feel.

Because the exact cause is not a definite, there’s also no conclusive test for gluten sensitivity.

The symptoms of gluten sensitivity are similar to celiac. However, the food component that causes the symptoms may or may not be gluten. It could also be alpha-amylase/trypsin inhibitors, FODMAPS, or fermentable oligo- and monosaccharides, also known as fructans.

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

In fact, those on a low-carb, gluten-free diet often end up eating more FODMAPs and fructans, because low-carb and gluten-free food manufacturers use them to provide sweetness, fiber, or other health benefits. Two of the most commonly used are fructooligosaccharides and inulin.

It’s possible that many people get rid of one trigger food and replace with another that’s an even more significant trigger.

You are 100% responsible for your health. So, if you believe you have gluten sensitivity, don’t wait for the medical community to come up with a conclusive test for you. Just stop eating gluten-containing foods for three months and see how you feel. If you notice a difference, but the symptoms don’t go away completely, do some homework on other potential triggers like FODMAPs and fructans.

Read Also: What You Need to Know About Digestive Enzymes.

Symptoms of Celiac and Gluten Sensitivity

The health complications associated with celiac disease, wheat allergy, and gluten sensitivity are all very similar. In fact, they’re so close to the same that I didn’t bother differentiating them in this article. I decided to group them as “gluten-related symptoms.”

Surprisingly, a large percentage of those with gluten issues do not have digestive-related symptoms. Instead, they display some of the psychological issues and end up misdiagnosed by a doctor.

Gluten-Related Symptoms
HeadacheJoint pain
Muscle painMuscle contractions (twitches)
Numbness in limbsChronic fatigue
Foggy headednessAnemia
Difficulty breathingDepression
Abdominal painNausea
BloatingGas
DiarrheaConstipation
Irritable bowel syndromeMuscle wasting
Weight lossHypoglycemia
Type I diabetesPsoriasis
AutismSchizophrenia
Gastroesophageal reflux (GERD)Skin rash
Rhinitis/asthmaIngrown hairs
Oligo- or polymenorrheaHallucinations

I look at that list, and can’t help but wonder how long it’ll be before a package of wheat bread comes with a warning label.

Gluten and Your Brain

In my opinion, the risks of brain-related problems are reason enough to avoid gluten-containing foods.

It can damage the nervous system a few different ways:

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

The following are some of the documented conditions connected to gluten consumption.

Gluten ataxia: An autoimmune condition 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: Have you ever noticed how your belly can feel stuffed, yet you still crave certain foods? Gluten can have that effect on some people.

Brain-active exorphins: You’ve probably heard of endorphins. They’re 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 on the body, but it comes from outside the body. You might temporarily feel good even though the gluten could be damaging your body.

Peripheral neuropathy: The second-most common, nervous system-related complication of celiac disease. Unfortunately, once it develops, adopting a gluten-free diet doesn’t seem to eliminate the neuropathy.

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

Headache: With all the other ways gluten impacts the nervous system, it’s not surprising that headaches are common amongst those with celiac disease.

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

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

Psychiatric disorders: Depression, apathy, irritability, attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder, autism, and bipolar and eating disorders are connected to gluten consumption.

Read also: Irritable Male Syndrome, Andropause, and Reclaiming Your Manhood.

Gluten and Your Body

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS): Symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome could 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 as well, which means blood sugar levels will crash harder than normal, causing hypoglycemia (low blood sugar).

Synovitis: Inflammation of the synovial joints, causing pain when the joint is moved, and swelling of the joint. Steroid injections may provide temporary relief and reduce inflammation, but they do nothing to fix the cause. In addition, corticosteroid injections can cause irreparable damage to the joint when used repeatedly.

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, and 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, which can lead to many other health problems given enough time.

Hashimoto’s thyroiditis: The most common cause of hypothyroidism. Your body reacts to an enzyme in the thyroid gland that looks, to your immune system, just like gluten. Since it’s been trained to attack gluten, it also attacks the thyroid enzyme. So, if gluten becomes an immune system trigger, your thyroid gland can become one 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 were shown to have 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 normal cycles with the removal of gluten 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?

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, “gluten-free” does not equal “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.

That means they need to severely limit carbohydrate intake, even if their carbs are gluten-free.

The core of a healthy diet is animal protein and non-starchy vegetables. High protein, high in vegetables.

The higher your body fat levels are, the more you need to restrict carbohydrates to get healthy and lean. Protein and vegetables are essential. Carbs should be earned.

You’ll also find gluten in sauces and spices, binders, and many other packaged food items that aren’t as obvious as bread and pasta. It takes a little label reading to know what to look for.

In my opinion, you can’t be “mostly gluten-free.” It’s an all or nothing thing. It’s a non-negotiable.

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.

However, as of yet, there is nothing you can add to your diet or supplement plan to eliminate the effects of regular gluten consumption. Just don’t eat it!

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Tom Nikkola

Tom Nikkola

Founder, VIGOR Training

Tom is the founder of VIGOR Training, powerful fitness programs for those committed to getting to the gym. He uses his 20 years of experience, and observation, and education in health and fitness to write, teach, and train men and women to feel, look, and perform better than ever. When he’s not working, you’ll find him hanging out with his wife Vanessa, or playing golf with their grandson Asher.