Unless you were living under a rock, or maybe a lovely deserted island with no internet, you’ve noticed the huge rise in people going “gluten-free” over the past several years. When I first had to eliminate gluten from my diet, it felt like the only people not eating gluten were Dr. Atkins and me. Actually, his book wasn’t even released until I’d been gluten free for three years and I was really happy when I started seeing more gluten-free and lower sugar options on menus. Now, EVERYONE has gluten-free options and it’s not just limited to a meat and veggie dish. Entire restaurants have been created just on the basis of being gluten-free. The word gluten is now so common-place that I rarely have to explain why I don’t eat bread (which I can do in four different languages by the way…I’m so fancy).
Why are so many people suddenly going gluten-free, even those without an official Celiac diagnosis?
First, let’s look at what the word “Celiac” even means. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, “Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. It is estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide. Two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and are at risk for long-term health complications.” In short, gluten damages the small intestine of genetically predisposed celiacs.
But what about the people that aren’t genetically predisposed? Why are so many of them going gluten-free? The ever exciting answer to this lies in what gluten actually is and what it can do to everyone’s intestine/gut (really, the people that named the intestines/gut needed better marketing skills).
Spoiler alert: Gluten’s propensity for damaging your intestine isn’t unique to celiacs.
Gluten is in a sub-class of lectins called prolamins. The breakdown looks like this: Lectins -> Prolamins -> Gluten -> Gliadin. Not all lectins can be harmful but some are, specifically prolamins (includes gluten) and agglutinins (includes wheat germ). Don’t let these terms overwhelm you, there won’t be a quiz and you don’t have to be an expert to understand how a food could harm you. Prolamins are difficult to digest and have an interesting way of interacting with the intestinal barrier (kind of like skin for your intestine – keeps the bad guys out and lets the good guys in). First, it can damage enterocytes which are cells that make up the walls of our intestines. Second, it can cause the spaces, “tight junctions”, between these cells to open when they shouldn’t. To really simplify our intestinal barrier, think about trying to hold your hand to make a cup for drinking water (or to hold mud for a mud pie if you are five). If you hold your fingers together tightly, you can keep most of the water in your hands. A little bit will seep through but not much. Now spread your fingers apart just a tiny bit and a whole lot of water leaks out.
Digested gluten (technically gliadin, but let’s keep the complex words to a minimum) has the ability to hitch a ride across our gut barrier, like water falling between your fingers, and can also stimulate the production of a protein called zonulin (ok fine, last fancy word I promise) when it is digested. Zonulin is a protein that regulates the opening and closing of tight junctions. In our example of holding your hand like a cup, it would determine how tightly and how loosely you hold your fingers. It allows for nutrients to move through the tight junction and to then be absorbed into the bloodstream or lymph. When zonulin isn’t properly regulated, it can open up the tight junctions when it shouldn’t; allowing non-nutritive particles, bacteria, parasites and partially digested food particles to pass through (a.k.a bad news bears) and remember, gluten throws off our zonulin. Fun Fact: Another big stimulator of Zonulin is glyphosate (a.k.a Round-Up).
So let’s look back at the Celiac Foundation’s definition…Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where ingestion of gluten leads to damage of the small intestine. After looking at the ways gluten impacts zonulin and enterocytes (the regulator of the spaces between the cell of our gut wall and the cells themselves), this statement could apply to everyone regardless of their genetic predisposition or official celiac diagnosis.
Why is any of this a big deal?
The simple explanation is that a leaky gut can make you feel terrible. A more complicated answer is that gluten intake and corresponding leaky gut can lead to autoimmune disease (“AID”). Just a few examples of AID are:
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Rheumatoid Arthritis
- Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis
- Ulcerative Colitis
BUT leaky gut isn’t just limited to causing known autoimmune diseases. There are many other conditions that are suspected to have ties to an autoimmune condition or are caused by inflammation from a leaky gut:
- Chronic fatigue syndrome
- Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS)
- Type II Diabetes
- Heart disease
- Acid Refux
- Irritable Bowl Syndrome
Sometimes the effects of a leaky gut may be so subtle that the issues don’t manifest themselves into true symptoms for decades. You may be struggling with losing weight or even obesity and not realize that your weight issues could all be tied to a leaky gut. On a smaller scale, gluten and a leaky gut could make you feel fatigued, make your joints achy and give you migraines. While gluten isn’t the only contributor to a leaky gut, it’s a big offender.
If gluten has always been around, why is it becoming more of a problem for our generation?
Well, there are many many research papers, medical journals and articles that I could link to but I personally think the first, and easiest, answer lies in the introduction of dietary guidelines to reduce fat intake in the 1970s, replace fat with whole grains with the Food Wheel of 1985 and the introduction of the Food Pyramid in 1992. The food pyramid was the U.S. Government’s way of encouraging a healthy diet (or more like playing to the interests of big money food lobbyists…but anywho…). The bottom layer of the pyramid was made up entirely of grains and pseudo-grains. The pyramid encouraged us to have grains and pseudo-grains make up the bulk of our daily diet and we quickly allowed these foods to dominate our diet. Our grandparents were more likely to be eating based on what was in season and available from their farmer’s market or garden. Before major food manufacturing and processing, serving bread, cereals and other grains at every meal would have been a pretty impressive feat for the home chef. These manufacturing and growing practices have also changed the structure of our wheat but that’s a discussion for another day. The movement toward the use of the food pyramid guidelines, demonization of fat and cholesterol and granting of food subsidies have led to quite a dramatic rise of gluten containing products in our diets.
Our grandparents were more likely to be eating based on what was in season and available from their farmer’s market or garden. Before major food manufacturing and processing, serving bread, cereals and other grains at every meal would have been a pretty impressive feat for the home chef. These manufacturing and growing practices have also changed the structure of our wheat but that’s a discussion for another day. The movement toward the use of the food pyramid guidelines, demonization of fat and cholesterol and food subsidies have led to a quite dramatic rise of gluten containing products in our diets.
Takeaway #1: The main difference between being a celiac and gluten sensitive is that celiacs actually produce antibodies toward gluten (technically gliadin). Gluten still has the same gut damaging potential regardless of antibody production. It can still lead to a leaky gut (this is not good and is a precursor to more severe autoimmune disease) even without a genetic predisposition.
Takeaway #2: Gluten isn’t a beneficial protein for anyone. It may bother/inflame some people more than others and some may not notice any problems at all BUT it isn’t improving the health of anyone.