The Gluten-Free Diet: A Not So Groundless Trend

“…Gliadin causes a release of zonulin, and zonulin signals the tight junctions to increase permeability, making an opening for a macronutrient invasion!” 

The gluten-free diet is undoubtedly a trend right now.  Gluten-free sections are sprouting up in supermarkets across America, and gluten-free options at restaurants are all the rage.  Yet, despite the popularity of going gluten free, it’s likely that gluten sensitivity is still under-diagnosed.  The estimates for the amount of people with gluten sensitivity range from 12-44% of the population.  Part of the reason gluten sensitivity is under-diagnosed is that it’s misunderstood — that its workings sound like a scene from a science fiction movie doesn’t help.  People are also skeptical that gluten can cause serious health problems.  Something as benign (and tasty) as bread can be responsible for or contribute to major intestinal problems, psychological disorders, arthritis, malnutrition, and a whole list of other problems — really?  Yes, really.

I too was reluctant to believe that gluten could be a serious threat to health.  Don’t get me wrong — I didn’t doubt that a few people were deathly allergic to gluten (in the case of celiac disease), but I was skeptical that those who didn’t suffer from celiac disease could benefit much by giving up a food as wholesome and delicious as sprouted, whole grain bread.  My posture towards gluten sensitivity wasn’t too different from that of the mainstream medical community.  If someone has a list of health problems and suspects gluten-intolerance, most doctors will usually test for celiac disease but discount the impact that gluten sensitivity can have.  After talking to friends, however, and hearing story after story about how eliminating gluten from their diet vastly improved their health, my perspective started to change.   I started doing my own research on why gluten sensitivity and celiac disease occur, and now I’m convinced that if someone has unexplainable health problems, especially related to their digestive system, gluten should be identified as a highly likely culprit.   

Understanding Celiac Disease:  Since celiac disease is essentially the extreme form of gluten sensitivity, an understanding of what causes it will help shed light on the causes of gluten sensitivity as well.  Celiac disease is caused by two factors: genetics and diet.  People with celiac disease have a genetic predisposition for extreme sensitivity to the gluten found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats.  When this type of gluten enters the small intestines of someone who’s highly sensitive to it, several things happen that cause the body’s immune system to start attacking itself instead of an actual threat (an auto-immune disease).  If gluten continues to be consumed it will lead to major digestive issues and the serious health problems mentioned earlier.

Here’s how it happens (This is a bit technical.  If you’re more interest in the “what” than the “how,” then skip ahead a couple paragraphs.):  Gluten is composed of two different types of proteins called gliadins and glutenins.  Gliadin is the primary culprit in celiacs disease.  When gliadin enters the small intestine, it’s still in its complete form because the human digestive system can’t digest it.  In response, the cells in the intestinal wall treat gliadin as a threat, as if it was a bacteria or virus instead of food  The cells proceed to release a protein called zonulin that signals the adjacent cells to separate, creating openings in the tight junctions of the intestinal wall (the spaces between the cells that line the intestine wall, called the mucosal barrier).  Usually there are openings just large enough to absorb fully digested nutrients, but the cells make a larger opening for the gliadin in order to expose it to the immune system.  

The larger openings in the mucosal barrier allow the gliadin to get through, but bacteria, fungus, and other harmful substances can get through too, and that’s just the beginning of the problem. Once the gliadin passes through the mucosal barrier, the intestinal cells release an enzyme that is part of their structure called tissue transglutaminase.  The transglutaminase binds to the gliadin to help equip the immune system to eliminate gliadin from the body.  The big problem is that the immune system mistakes transglutaminase as part of the gliadin, when it’s actually part of healthy cells throughout the body.  As a result, the immune system release antibodies against the transglutaminase that proceed to destroy healthy human cells in the intestinal wall, thyroid, brain, and elsewhere.  

Gluten Sensitivity: In people with gluten sensitivity, much of the same process takes place, but for whatever reason, their bodies don’t attack the transglutaminase to the same extent.  They may still, however, have many of the symptoms of celiacs disease, such as digestive problems, lethargy, thyroid problems, and psychological imbalance.  Gluten sensitivity can also cause the body to burn through its vitamin D stores, which is alarming given vitamin D’s importance in immunity and proper cellular function.

It should also be noted that the gliadin in gluten causes permeability in the small intestine whether one is sensitive to gluten or not.  This permeability can allow harmful organisms and toxins to enter the blood stream and can contribute to inflammation, acne, diabetes, allergies, and asthma.  

The take away: If you have any of the symptoms mentioned throughout this article and can’t seem to figure out what’s causing it, you may want to try going without gluten for a month.  If the symptoms go away, it’s likely that you have a sensitivity to gluten.  You can also talk to a doctor who’s knowledgeable about gluten sensitivity about being tested.  

If it seems odd that God would create an edible plant that has negative consequences for such a large percentage of the population, keep in mind that modern wheat has been transformed by the technologies of civilization.  Wheat has undergone extensive hybridization and genetic modifications, not for its nutritive value, but for pest resistance and crop yield.  Also, wheat is being consumed in larger quantities than ever before due to advances in agricultural and processing technologies.

Ancient forms of wheat, “uncivilized wheat,” so to speak, seem to have contained forms of gluten that didn’t affect the immune system the way modern wheat glutens do.  An ancient wheat called “einkorn” is still available today and shows promise for those with gluten sensitivity, but studies are still under way.  In the meantime, if you want or need to go without gluten, there are a variety of grains that are gluten free, including quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and rice.  And like I mentioned earlier, the gluten-free diet is a growing trend, so gluten-free options are on the rise.  In another positive light, less bread means more room for vegetables, fruits, nuts, eggs, and free-range meats, which are healthier for us anyway! 

 

References:Celiac Disease Symptoms, Celiac Disease is the Tip of the Ice Berg, Zonulin and It’s Roll in Intestinal Barrier Function

Originally posted 2013-01-18 03:48:00.

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