Gluten: Should Anyone Care?

Gluten: Should Anyone Care?

For an unknown segment of the population, something awful and sneaky happens whenever gluten is consumed... but why?

Long read

Gluten. We've all heard of it, and we all have some family member or friend who is avoiding it. Alternately conceived as pure poison or the staff of life, bread has only recently become the subject of considerable controversy.

Some people avoid it like their life depends on it, while others think that going gluten-free unless you're diagnosed with celiac disease is nothing but an overblown fad. After all, we've eaten this stuff for hundreds of years, right?

Well… yes and no. As you will see if you keep reading, our relationship with gluten is complicated. This article will provide a broad overview of gluten and the possible health implications associated with eating it.

When you've finished reading this glutinous exposé, you will know more about the physical impact of gluten than most North Americans. I will warn you, though, that once you have read these words, you will not be able to unread them!

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What is Gluten?

Gluten comes from the Latin word for "glue." It's the protein in wheat that gives your morning croissant its gooey, elastic texture. This special quality is recognized (and missed) as soon as one bites into any gluten-free or keto bread, which usually tastes like a dense, dry brick in comparison.

To make things more complicated, gluten breaks down into a sticky glue component called glutenin and a protein component called gliadin. Gliadin is divided into types, and each of them (alpha, omega, and gamma gliadin) can have unique effects on the immune system.

The most studied gliadin compound is alpha gliadin, which has attained notoriety as a molecule known to cause severe inflammatory responses in celiac patients and is even proven to increase leaky gut syndrome in individuals without any gluten sensitivity at all.

Usually, when products are labelled "gluten-free," it means they contain no alpha gliadin. Alpha gliadin is also the most commonly tested compound on allergy tests - and many labs will test only for that, calling it "gluten," without testing for other portions of the whole gluten protein.

The dirty little secret, I'm so sorry you had to hear it from me, is this: while they may not contain the notorious alpha gliadin, all grains contain gluten-style proteins, even the so-called gluten-free grains like rice and corn.

Are people more intolerant to gluten these days?

With any health or lifestyle trend, there will be people doing it who might not need to. It seems downright probable that some people are hopping on the gluten-free bandwagon when it may not be necessary. However, there is no doubt that gluten sensitivity is higher than ever. A groundbreaking 2009 study found that the incidence of celiac had risen 700 percent in the past 50 years. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity has probably increased even more.

So, the million-dollar question is, "Why?" Why are so many people having immune responses to gluten?

My answer is that the bread we are eating today is, in fact, quite simply, not the same bread our grandparents ate. Our bodies and the way we produce bread are different in many ways from 50 years ago, but here are three significant ways that the bread we're eating today isn't even the same as the bread we were eating when we were kids:

Hybridization

Hybridization is the process of selectively breeding different strains to emphasize desirable qualities. It is not the same as genetic modification, which artificially inserts or removes genes from a sequence; hybridization is much simpler. This selective breeding process may also explain regional differences in wheat strains over generations. While it may sound fairly benign, hybridization can make the difference between glutinous proteins that do not trigger an immune response or cause inflammation and glutinous proteins that do.

Deamidation

Deamidation is used frequently in the processed food industry and causes a more significant immune reaction. While gluten is typically only soluble in alcohol, deamidation is the process of using enzymes or acids to make gluten water-soluble. This process makes gluten more useful as a binding, texturing, filling, or structural element in processed foods. A double-blind, placebo-controlled study showed that many individuals who did not have an immune response to natural wheat flour did have moderate or severe reactions to the deamidated wheat.

Glyphosate

Glyphosate is the main active compound in Monsanto's RoundUp, the most widely used herbicide in the world. Over 20 billion pounds of glyphosate have been used globally since the 1970s. RoundUp is essentially a weed killer. Monsanto's brilliance lies in genetically modifying crop seeds to be "RoundUp-ready," meaning that when crop-dusted over an entire farm field, the herbicide will kill every weed it touches but leave the crop itself completely unharmed. Since RoundUp-ready crops were introduced in 1996, herbicide use has skyrocketed.

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RoundUp's use in the wheat crop cycle is somewhat different. Instead of being used as an herbicide, it is used as a desiccant. At the end of the growth stage, when the wheat is ready to be harvested, RoundUp is sprayed all over the crop to kill and dry it out, prepping it for harvest. In other words, the wheat is collected for milling directly after being sprayed with glyphosate.

In Canada, if wheat is not Certified Organic, you can bet it has been sprayed with herbicide. Since RoundUp has been considered completely safe by Monsanto (despite a lack of long-term safety study), there is no perceived problem with applying it directly to our food.

In the wake of a high-profile court ruling that found RoundUp to be a causal factor in an American agricultural worker's non-Hodgkin' lymphoma, more and more people believe that Monsanto's favourite herbicide might not be so benign after all. More and more studies are finding a correlation between glyphosate consumption, cancer, and other health problems.

Anecdotally, it is very common to hear clients say that when they travel to France or Italy (where glyphosate use on wheat isn't as ubiquitous as in North America), bread and pasta don't bother them. Still, in North America, just one sandwich can cause bloating, constipation, achiness, and more.

Gluten and Mental Health

Neuro-celiac

Gluten can create inflammation in the gut, but more recent research suggests that gluten is harder on the brain than any other organ in the body. I can tell you as a clinician that gluten is often implicated in mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and more. If we look at the mechanism of the so-called "neuro-celiac" condition, we might get some clues as to why.

For an unknown segment of the population, something awful and sneaky happens whenever gluten is consumed; their immune system attacks their brain and nervous system. This response may be owing to the principle of molecular mimicry, which powerfully illuminates the relationship between food sensitivities or allergies and autoimmune reactions. The concept of molecular mimicry is quite simple; our body is primarily made of proteins, and some of these physically resemble the dietary proteins found in the food we eat. If the immune system has created antibodies specifically for these food proteins that it has decided are intruders, it will attack them. Unfortunately, the body's tissues featuring similar proteins may experience the same fate.

Fortunately, we have lab testing that can uncover gluten-provoked autoimmune attacks on the brain. The bad news is that, until running such a test, neuro-celiac reactions may be tough to uncover. Many people suffering from it have zero digestive complaints such as gas, constipation or bloating that might typically be a clue to gluten sensitivity. Therefore, they eat wheat, none the wiser, while their depression, anxiety, or cognitive problems worsen.

Alpha Gliadin and Leaky Gut

Let's look at gluten's action in the gut. We may see another link to mental health issues, and that's because leaky gut (e.g. "increased intestinal permeability") can be correlated with depression. Alpha gliadin causes increased intestinal permeability. The gut's mucosal barrier helps keep the outside out and the inside in.

When this barrier becomes compromised, food particles, heavy metals, parasites, and bacteria get into the blood that shouldn't be there. Alpha gliadin doesn't only increase the tendency toward more permeability in celiacs or those sensitive to wheat but in all individuals. It doesn't happen overnight, but throughout a long gluten-eating career, the tendency will be toward more and more permeability until symptoms develop. Of course, since we're all unique, when or if gluten intake leads to symptoms - and what those symptoms might be - is unique to the individual.

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Putting it All Together

Now that you've read this far, you might be wondering: if you, dear reader, are one of the unfortunate people walking around with hidden gluten sensitivity? If so, I have two pieces of good news for you.

First, very sophisticated lab testing exists to uncover neuro-celiac immune reactions, intestinal permeability, and allergy testing.

Second, you don't even have to pay for a fancy functional lab test to find out if you're better off without gluten in your life - it's free to try cutting it out. It is important to remember that all grains contain glutinous proteins, just not the infamous alpha gliadin.

What this means practically, in the real world, is that some people will see remarkable improvements in their mental and physical health by cutting out gluten for four to six weeks, while others will need to go entirely grain-free to see the same magic.

If you feel great and full of life, with a stable mood and consistent energy throughout the day, you probably don't need to change your diet. If you struggle with digestive issues such as bloating, diarrhea and constipation, you might see an improvement by taking a break from grains.

What have you got to lose?

Tags:
Celiac
,
Wheat
,
Gut
,
Dietitian
,
Gluten
,
Gluten-Free
Damien ZielinskiA cloud-based functional medicine practitioner with a focus on mental health and insomnia
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