Voices get raised and ‘facts’ get bandied about with more self-righteous indignation than logic or research. Every magazine has contradictory information and almost everyone has their own gluten-religion, some of it is based on resistance to change, some on ease of access, but much of it is based on memories of comfort and love.
My grandfather was a baker. I grew up at his knee, kneading and knocking down the yeasty dough, shaping my own bread roll into an impractically intricate shape as he expertly produced his baker’s dozen in the same time, so I understand the emotional attraction of fresh, airy gluten-filled bread better than most. Does that make it good for me? Unfortunately no. What feeds my soul with nostalgic memories isn’t as good for other, more physical parts of me, but that doesn’t mean the same is true to the same degree for you.
In this post I’m going to try to break down the gluten argument to explain why you might choose one way and someone else might choose another. It’ll be a very high level overview of the science behind gluten’s biological effects, but it will give you a framework for further research if you’re more of an information junkie.
Hopefully when all the conflicting information that confuses us is logically organised, gluten discussions can be more useful and less preachy.
Intolerance to gluten falls into a spectrum of degrees of negative response:
Celiac’s are hugely intolerant to gluten. They cannot afford even cross-contamination from a board or knife used to cut something that had gluten in it. If they are exposed to gluten, their reactions are extreme and serious. Celiac disease is usually diagnosed via an intestinal biopsy and blood and genetic tests.
Wheat Allergy / Gluten Allergy
People who are allergic to wheat or gluten intolerant generally have an immediate, measurable reaction to it like a rash or difficulty breathing. An intestinal biopsy is not necessary to diagnose it as there is a definitive IgE blood test to diagnose it.
Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)
This is the most hotly debated one, mainly because there is no blood test for gluten sensitivity. It is the underlying reaction that builds up over time, so you don’t suddenly go red, swell up and stop breathing, and your skin doesn’t break out in hives on contact. In other words, there are no obvious, immediate symptoms to prove you’re gluten sensitive. An intestinal biopsy can be done to confirm gluten-related damage, but that is invasive and unnecessary if an elimination diet can give you the same answer to “Can I tolerate gluten or not?” They are now starting to determining biomarkers that do prove NCGS, but it’s still in the early stages of being studies and defined.
Other ‘passengers’ in the gluten grain
There are other chemicals on and in grains containing gluten that can also be responsible for the IBS-type symptoms experienced when eaten. These would include fertilisers, pesticides or complex sugars called FODMAPS. You might not be strictly gluten intolerant, but intolerant to one of those ingredients. This means that you might be unable to eat gluten grains and assume you’re gluten-sensitive, but you might actually have a pesticide or FODMAP sensitivity. You still have to avoid the gluten containing grains to avoid a continuation of your symptoms, but just not because of the gluten itself.
I was always of the practical philosophy of “What’s in a name? A rose by any other name would smell as fair”, but studies have proved me wrong. You should follow the various biopsy, blood test and elimination paths to determine exactly where your problem lies. If the underlying problem is an underlying auto-immune issue, your doctor needs to know that and your health management will be different. There’ll be more about that in a later post.
Better food choices
Often, when eliminating gluten, people become more conscious of the power and purpose of nutrition and start eating more whole foods, which could lead to a sense of well-being that could be falsely attributed to being gluten free. Flour in general, whether or not it contains gluten, is not a best choice as about 80% of its nutritive value is lost in the milling process. Replacing flour with vegetables would immediately give your body more of the building blocks it needs to process your fuel-compounds, so you will also automatically feel better. Your blood glucose will also in most cases be more balanced which will give you more energy and you will feel you are coping better overall.
Whole foods are the best food choice .
Four basic gluten facts
- Gluten is a protein found in wheat and rye grains, and is generally used in the processing of oats.
- The gluten protein consists of two other proteins, glutenin and gliadin. It is possible to react to one and not the other, but a celiac reacts to both, and even often to other proteins with a similar structure.
- Gluten stimulates the production of a hormone called zonulin in your gut and your brain. Zonulin opens ‘doors’, more correctly known as tight junctions in both the intestine and the brain, allowing the contents to leak into neighbouring tissue and the blood stream. Obviously your brain could be less protected from pathogens, metals etc if zonulin relaxes the tight junctions of the blood brain barrier. As your brain doesn’t have the detoxifying processes that the rest of your body does, that is a worry.
- Gluten creates a toxic response and a detoxifying waterfall. Most people can cope with the tight junctions allowing leakage and their body cleans it out through various detoxifying processes. Your body always has to process some side-effect toxins if you eat gluten because of this, so it isn’t a best choice food. If your body is already dealing with other toxic load, it will have a harder time eliminating the additional toxins.
How do I choose if I eat gluten or not?
If you have a reaction to gluten grains, then ignore what the media says in half their articles and take their advice from the other half: avoid gluten because avoiding it can’t harm you and eating it does. It’s your body, you know it best and you don’t have to justify that to anyone.
If you don’t react, but just want to up your game and make better choices, then I would suggest that you mostly avoid gluten and concentrate on better, whole foods.
BUT! If you are replacing gluten with a lot of other refined products, you haven’t really treated your body to much of an improvement. Then it might be best to stay with gluten of a better quality and eat the fermented, sourdough options that break down more easily in your colon.
If you’re eating gluten-free products to lose weight, you’re on the wrong path. You’d be better advised to eat at a good balance of micro and macro-nutrients and address lifestyle factors like stress, sleep and exercise to achieve that.
Personal choices – your own truth
I personally can eat gluten, but it definitely affects my mental and digestive performance so I don’t eat it often.
If my teenage daughter eats it, even unknowingly, she physically looks like she’s swallowed lead: her shoulders hang, her body moves like its being held back and she judges herself and the world around her from a difficult place. We don’t have to ask if she ate gluten that day, the result is visually measurable. That’s her truth, and it’s based on her body’s response. I respect that because to tell her she isn’t experiencing what she is because science hasn’t devised a test to confirm it yet is disrespectful and closed-minded. She’s clearly NCGS, but we’ve chosen to do the biopsy when she’s a little older in the hopes that the tests are more efficient then and hopefully less invasive. In the meantime she completely avoids gluten as a trigger to autoimmunity.
You have your own gluten-reality and you have the right to choose what you want to, whether it’s based on physical or chemical responses, practical issues or philosophy. Trust your body, tune in to it, and do what will give you the best results. Just don’t assume your answer is also your child’s answer or your neighbour’s answer. We’re all different. We have to accept that there is no one-size-fits-all in nutrition, so don’t crusade because something works for you – it’s important to keep your friends even if they can eat crusty baguettes and you can’t.
Even if we come from the same pod and look the same, we aren’t.
We’re all individual – and that’s medicine and nutrition’s exciting new frontier.
It’s terrifying because your reality isn’t the same as anyone else’s, it’s liberating because what you feel is real and no-one else can tell you differently, it’s frustrating because your therapists have to get to know and understand you, so on some level you’ll always be a guinea-pig.