Gluten has garnered a lot of attention over the past few years. Gluten-free foods have taken up residence in the aisles of nearly every grocery store and gluten-free bakeries and pizza joints are popping up all over Southwestern Pennsylvania. So, what’s with the hype surrounding gluten? Why is gluten bad? Should we leave all of the worrying about gluten to patients with Celiac disease? Allow me to explain.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, spelt and rye. While oats do not contain gluten, they are sometimes cross-contaminated with gluten. Gluten wasn’t always a problem, but because we’ve modified and processed wheat so differently over the past 40 years, modern day wheat wreaks havoc on the digestive and immune system.
Why is Gluten Bad?
The gut contains cilia-like hairs called villi, which function to protect the lining of the gut and aid in absorption of nutrients. When you eat gluten, it wears down the villi, exposes the gut lining and causes gap junctions to open in the gut lining. Therefore there is no longer an intact barrier in the gut because the cells that line the gut, enterocytes, have become hyper permeable. This causes leaky gut syndrome (dysbiosis).
Leaky gut syndrome means that the gut no longer has an intact barrier. When this happens, partially digested food particles are able to enter the blood stream, where they do not belong, causing the immune system to jump into action. As the immune system detects the food particles, it labels them as intruders and mounts an inflammatory response against the byproducts of gluten that have found their way into the blood stream. The immune system releases chemicals that can adversely affect the intestines, lungs, heart, skin and other areas over time. As these byproducts of gluten travel through the blood stream, they have the potential to affect several organs along the way.
How does Gluten Affect the Organs?
The manner in which gluten affects the body varies from person to person. Once gluten has entered the blood stream it has the potential to affect the body in the following ways:
- Nervous System: Gluten byproducts can cross the blood-brain barrier, where they act as excitotoxins, chemicals that stimulate neurons to the point where they fire too rapidly and die. This can manifest as brain fog, anxiety, depression, irritability and memory loss.
- Joints: Gluten can lead to inflamed joins and arthritis. Many patients suffering from arthritic conditions have found relief from simply removing gluten from their diets.
- Digestive Disturbances: This is probably the most well known effect of gluten on the body. Symptoms include bloating, gas, cramps, aches and diarrhea. It’s important to note that digestive disturbances are not limited to patients with celiac disease.
- Thyroid: Gluten can encourage the body to product antibodies against the thyroid. That’s why it isn’t uncommon to see people with a food allergy to gluten suffering from autoimmune conditions such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis and Grave’s Disease.
- Pancreas: Much like the thyroid, people who consume gluten often can end up with Type 1 Diabetes.
- ….and more. Gluten can affect every organ system in the body.
The Good News
All of this sounds scary, and the truth is, it can be if gluten is able to enter the blood stream and get out of control. However, avoiding gluten in today’s world is easier than ever before. There are several fantastic gluten-free breads, baked goods and snacks that do not contain gluten. Many restaurants offer gluten-free options, you just have to ask! It’s best to consume foods that naturally do not contain gluten rather than the substitutes, however, because the substitutes often contain other inflammatory foods like corn, potato and soy. More people are being informed about gluten every day and are avoiding gluten so there is more support today than there was ten years ago.
Gluten is the number one culprit for wearing down the lining of the gut. In our next post, we’ll talk about another food culprit that you’ll want to be aware of as you continue on your path to health.