The Trouble with Gluten


Frozen waffles for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch, pasta for dinner. Sounds about right, yes? This is typical nutrition for the standard American. We have been taught and conditioned to think that wheat is the ?staff of life?, and our purpose is to earn our daily bread.

What if our daily bread didn?t provide nourishment and confer health benefits, but instead was a contributor to wide spread obesity and chronic illness and responsible for the pandemic of autoimmune disease in the United States?

That would be a problem, of course, and today I am going to tell you about the trouble with gluten.

Gluten is the protein molecule that is found in wheat, barley and rye. It?s what holds bread together and confers wonderful texture. It gives pasta chewiness.

It?s also a much different molecule than it was even 2 generations ago, and has further-ranging impacts on us now than it did then.

Gluten-containing grains have been bred over the last several decades to have higher and higher protein content. This is an attempt to make grains have more protein and be more nutritive. It?s a way to get more ?bang for your buck? and to increase yields per hectare of grain.

An unforeseen consequence was that the molecule itself changed. Gluten these days is a fairly large molecule ? in fact, double the number of chromosomes of its heirloom predecessor.

It has some other unique features. For one, the molecule itself is spiraled. Most other protein molecules are straight, which lends them easier to be cleaved and broken down by our digestive enzymes. Gluten, by its very nature, does not cleave and break down easily in the stomach. When large, unbroken molecules hit the small intestine, they can cause gas, bloating and a dysfunctional immune response.

Wheat, in particular, has a form of mega-starch called amylopectin A. This carbohydrate is extremely inflammatory and provocative to the immune system. It also causes very large hikes in blood sugar, contributing to blood sugar dysregulation, insulin resistance and obesity. This carbohydrate can raise your blood sugar faster than a slice of white bread or a tablespoon of white sugar.

Gluten also has drug-like qualities. Gluteomorphins are the compounds that are made from partially digested gluten molecules. These gluteomorphins bind to opiod (same receptors for morphine, heroin, etc) receptors in your gut, making you addicted and craving them more and more.

Between the super-sized gluten molecule, the fattening starch that gluten-containing wheat harbors, and the addictive qualities of gluten containing foods, you would think we have enough to deal with. However, beyond the unappealing features of gluten, we also need to explore what gluten does to the body.

It is estimated that between 1 in 140 and 1 in 100 people have Celiac disease. Celiac is a genetic autoimmune condition whereby the immune system destroys the lining of the small intestine. This sets of a cascade of body-wide effects and malnutrition. Another 21 million Americans are thought to have non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. These people do not have Celiac disease and small intestine destruction, but an immune response is elicited with gluten exposure and body-wide effects are also seen.

The body can react to gluten in a seemingly endless variety of ways. There can be mental/emotional changes from the inflammation of the blood brain barrier and altered neurotransmitter signaling. Headaches and migraines are also common in gluten sensitivity. Alzheimer?s disease has inflammation at its core, and gluten is a major driver of inflammation. A variety of skin conditions, including acne, eczema, psoriasis and dermatitis can be improved with gluten elimination.

If the immune system is making antibodies to gluten, it can also begin to make antibodies to our own tissues or friendly bacteria. This phenomenon is called molecular mimicry and helps to explain how gluten intake is a common thread in autoimmune disease.

Gluten can also trigger leaky gut. The cells that line the small intestine stand shoulder to shoulder, tightly, forming a barrier. There is a structure in between the cells called desmosomes. Desmosomes are like buttons that keep the cells tightly close to one another. Gluten is able to unbutton desmosomes. When this happens, the immune system is able to leak out into the opening of the intestine, creating antibodies to many of the foods you are eating. The immune cells also release signaling molecules called cytokines that call other immune cells to the area and help keep the desmosomes unbuttoned. The result is more inflammation, more immune stimulation and more antibody production in a dysfunctional gut on fire.

Gluten can have impacts on the joints, making them sore and achy. Thyroid disease, fatigue and all manner of gastrointestinal complaints ranging from cramps, diarrhea, constipation, reflux, colitis, IBD can be triggered or exacerbated by gluten.

There is an ever-growing body of research to support the fact that gluten sensitivity is not just an in-fashion health fad, but a real, pressing phenomenon that deserves our attention in a large-scale way.

Are you interested in other foods that aren’t great for gut health? See Top Ten Worst Foods for Digestive Health

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