Breaking Down Gluten
Over the last decade the term gluten-free has gone from an obscure diet that few knew anything about, to a “buzz” phrase that’s been endorsed by celebrities and plastered over products, cookbooks and magazines. While the term is certainly more popular now than it was ten years ago, the truth is there’s still a lot of confusion around gluten, what it is, how it affects your body and who should avoid it. So, if you’re looking for an easy to digest (no pun intended) breakdown, keep reading, this one’s for you.
What exactly is gluten and why is it bad?
Gluten, is one of the most heavily consumed proteins on earth and is created when two molecules, glutenin and gliadin come into contact and form a bond. This family of proteins naturally occur in all forms of wheat (bulgur, durum, semolina, spelt, farro and more) as well as in barley, rye and triticale (a wheat-rye cross). Gluten is what makes pizza dough stretchy and what gives bread its chewy texture. For those that love bread, pizza and pastas there are a lot of reasons to appreciate gluten. But, gluten can also prompt an abnormal immune response in some people. For people with celiac disease the briefest exposure to gluten can be powerful enough to damage intestinal cells and lead to serious health problems.
Celiac disease was once thought to be present in approximately 1 in 10,000 Americans, however we have seen that this immune response to the gluten in common grains was merely the tip of the iceberg. Landmark work done by Dr. Alesso Fasano and others at The Center for Celiac Disease at the University of Maryland and ongoing at the center’s new home at Boston’s MassGeneral Hospital for Children suggests that the condition may occur in a quiescent but insidious form as frequently as 1 in 133 individuals in the US. While those diagnosed with Celiac disease represent approximately 1% of the population, it is estimated that six to eight times as many people may be gluten sensitive.
During digestion, proteins such as gluten should be broken down into individual amino acids and then absorbed through the small intestine, however gluten proteins are difficult for the human digestive tract to break down, which can cause serious problems for some people. For those that have an intolerance to gluten, malabsorption of nutrients and inflammation can occur. Gluten also opens up the tight junctions that bind intestinal cells together, leading to “leaky gut”, a condition that allows proteins that are not fully digested (like gluten) to enter the bloodstream, triggering an immune response. Malabsorption, inflammation and leaky gut create an ongoing vicious cycle in the digestive system, leaving individuals who are sensitive to gluten with a variety of unwelcomed symptoms.
Do you have a gluten sensitivity and what to do about it?
The classic and most immediately noticeable symptoms of gluten intolerance are bloating, flatulence, diarrhea. However, we know today that there are other symptoms that may occur outside of the digestive system like joint pain, skin conditions, migraines, mood issues and fatigue.
Here’s the part where you’re thinking, I’m experiencing one or more of these symptoms and I want to get tested. It’s also the part where it gets a little complicated. Physicians can establish a diagnosis for Celiac disease simply and easily by testing for antibodies. However identifying and diagnosing non-celiac gluten-free sensitive (NCGS) patients remains a challenge. More extensive tests exist through Cyrex Labs, but these tests are not standard practice.
So, what’s an easy way for you to find out if you’re sensitive to gluten without getting tested? Simply remove it from your diet completely for at least three weeks and see how you feel. If your symptoms improve, it likely indicates that your body has an adverse reaction to gluten.
Embracing a gluten-free diet
The good news is, there is no better time to experiment with a gluten-free diet than today. There are cookbooks, blogs, and magazines devoted to offering tasty and easy-to-prepare gluten-free recipes. There are also a myriad of gluten-free products in the marketplace to help make it convenient to eliminate gluten from your diet.
Although it is easier today than ever before to eliminate gluten, there are things you need to know before you start. As stated earlier, gluten is found in the obvious places. Foods made with wheat, rye, barley and triticale and any food made from these sources such as cereals, bread, pasta, baked goods, and other snacks. However, it tends to hide in foods you wouldn’t think of too, such as sauces, deli meats, soy sauce, soups, some cheeses, supplements (unless specified gluten-free) and many other prepared foods as well as most beer, ale and lagers. So, it is important to educate yourself on everything you allow into your diet so that you’re certain you are truly eliminating all gluten.
It’s also important to realize that embracing a gluten-free diet should look and feel like any other healthy diet. It should be built around vegetables, fruits, organic meats and wild fish. It can also include gluten-free grains like quinoa, brown rice, and legumes and beans. It should limit gluten-free cookies, donuts and other treats, even if they are labeled “gluten-free” because they are still loaded with refined gluten-free flours and sugar.
Knowing the basics about gluten and it’s effect on your digestive system is not as mysterious as you may have thought. And, although there are still challenges with getting a true diagnostic report on whether or not you have a gluten sensitivity, there is an easy way for you to find out for yourself. Managing your health through diet and supplements is the first step in becoming aware of what is right for you and your body.
References  Jax Peters Lowell,Anthony J. DiMarino, The Gluten-Free Revolution