Almost nobody knew what gluten was a few years ago. However, walk the aisles of a supermarket in a big city today. Certainly, you will see an array of gluten-free products. Why buy them?
What is it?
First, what exactly is gluten? It’s a strange sounding word, isn’t it? Gluten means glue in Latin. It is not a single substance. That is to say, gluten is the name given to several proteins that usually appear together. These proteins come in the cereal grains wheat, barley, rye, and oats. Everything made from these grains has gluten. That is to say, bread, pasta, cereals, and pastries will usually contain gluten.
Gluten is the glue that holds dough together. It allows dough to rise. Gluten helps dough be stretchy and chewy. Plus, gluten is cheap. This is a central reason why the food industry refines gluten. It is included in many different products. Additionally, some lip balms, soy sauce, sauce mixes, and more include gluten.
When your body fights itself
Gluten entered the public consciousness because some people have a severe reaction to gluten. Gluten prevents their bodies from taking in nutrients. In other words, people with celiac disease will not be able to maintain normal health if they eat anything with gluten in it. The lining of the small intestine will be affected. Anemia often comes up in people who suffer from celiac disease. If they keep eating gluten, risk of conditions such as multiple sclerosis, fertility issues, or weakening of the bones increases. Further, celiac disease encourages autoimmune disorders like thyroiditis.(1)
Autoimmune disorders occur when your immune system misunderstands whatever may be attacking it for the body itself. It then turns its fight inwards. Not a good look! Keep this in mind as you read further. You will come across autoimmune disorders again and again as you learn more about current research examining how gluten influences the human body. Because of celiac disease, more people began to look at how gluten may influence us.
When your gut leaks
Your gut is a highly sophisticated organ. Among other things, it allows good stuff into the rest of your body and keeps out bad stuff — most of the time! Sometimes your gut lets the wrong things into your body. We call that leaky gut. Think of it as your gut being a lazy gatekeeper. In people with and without celiac disease, gluten encourages a protein called zonulin. Zonulin loosens the connections between the cells in your gut. More can get through. Unwelcome visitors are not good news!(2)
An example of what a leaky gut lets get in is gliadin, which is also found in gluten. Scientists suggest that gluten is like a Trojan Horse. It tricks your body into opening up, then uses that as an invitation to carry even more bad stuff in. Once gliadin is in your bloodstream, it can be misunderstood for the body’s own tissue. Remember autoimmune disorders? That’s what happens. Your body goes to war — against itself.
Research suggests that, aside from celiac disease, gluten may affect other autoimmune gut diseases like Crohn’s Disease and inflammatory bowel disorder (IBS). Without gluten, your body might be better able to fight what it really needs to fight.(3) Further, another study suggested that people who do not have celiac disease, but report sensitivity to wheat may have higher than normal tendencies towards suffering from autoimmune diseases and exhibiting relevant antibodies.(4)
Interestingly, yet another study observed that autoimmune responses to gluten were different in people suffering from celiac disease and people with sensitivity to gluten. This suggests that these two groups of people are experiencing different things within the ecosystem of their bodies. It’s not just different levels of the same biochemical reaction. However, both these types of responses were triggered by gluten.(5)
“Digestion is key for energy and wellbeing — and to the way that our brain works.”
Celiac disease and other disorders
These are just a few of the hunches that scientists have been following in tracking the affect that gluten may have on individuals with and without celiac disease. A number of small studies have suggested that people with schizophrenia and epilepsy may be more likely to suffer from celiac disease. To clarify, this does not necessarily mean that gluten contributes to these diseases. However, there is a correlation to a tendency towards celiac disease in schizophrenics and epileptics. Nevertheless, it is an interesting footnote to celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.(6)(7)
Gluten and the gut
Generally, more people are now aware of how different foods affect their bodies — and how they can make decisions about what they eat in order to feel better and live better. That is to say, gut and gastrointestinal health is becoming more of a priority for many. Many foods with gluten seem to be hard on the gut and intestines. For instance, you might feel bloated or experience excessive gas and diarrhea. Your head may not feel clear. You may feel you lack energy. Many people without celiac disease have experienced a lessening of these symptoms once gluten is removed from their diets. To clarify, this is probably the main reason for all of these gluten-free products you now see in food stores.
Further, more research suggests basis for these general feelings. For instance, a study by the Expert Review of Gastroenterology and Hepatology supported the emergence of gastrointestinal symptoms caused by gluten in people without celiac disease.(8) Another study observed intestinal cell damage in individuals without celiac disease after they ingested gluten.(9) This study also provided more leads for further research to be built upon.
Gut flora, gut flowers
Certainly, much of the exact workings of our gut microbiome, or the tiny creatures that live in our gut and aid our digestion, are unknown. The changing nature of the world may also effect the way that our food is digested. Digestion is key for energy and wellbeing — and to the way that our brain works. We’ll tell you more about that later on. The point is that the microorganisms in your gut have a huge effect on the way that you experience life. From the research cited, we can see that many scientists think there is a connection between gluten and optimal gut health.
But do we need to eat gluten to be healthy? Well, many people depend on whole grains for fibre and other nutrients. However, that does not mean that these nutrients have to be obtained through grains. With some attention, a healthy diet filled with everything that you need can be put together.
The Association of Nutrition stated through its spokesperson, Rafe Bundy: “There are many people around the world that consume a diet which is naturally gluten free or low in gluten. A good example is most of Asia, where the main staple food is rice, not wheat. It’s perfectly possible to have a healthy diet which is also gluten-free diet using most standard dietary advice.”
…. and more mysteries of our health
We now know that type 2 diabetes is triggered by how we look after our health. There is still so much that we do not know about how Type 1 diabetes comes to be. A study has suggested that wheat gluten may trigger Type 1 diabetes alongside viruses.(10) Gluten sensitivity is also linked to greater susceptibility to dementia.(11) Further, autoimmune disorders in general are linked to higher rates of depression.(12) Of course, you cannot blame gluten for everything. Our bodies, minds and spirits function in a deeply complex way which is very delicately balanced. However, it is intriguing to learn more about how gluten may affect this ecosystem.
To sum up….
We need more research clarifying all the effects that gluten has on the human body. However, the same things come up in many different studies. Do these studies interest you? Do you want to reduce the amount of gluten that you eat? Remember, just because something is labelled gluten-free does not mean it is better for you. Gluten-free products can still be processed. They can still have other nasties like sugar. The best thing to do? Eat close to the earth. Keep your eyes open. Be awake to how you feel and what makes you feel good. And enjoy!