What's The Deal With Gluten?

Ten years ago no one knew what gluten was and now it seems like everyone is going gluten-free.  What’s the big deal and why has gluten come into focus?

Gluten is a complex protein found in members of the wheat family (wheat, barley, rye, triticale, kamut, spelt, etc.).  It is the gluten protein that makes bread rise, keeps cookies and crackers from being crumbly and makes tender pasta.  While there is no answer as to why gluten has become such an issue, there is speculation.  It may be the amount of gluten now found in wheat.  At the turn of the century wheat contained much less gluten but has been hybridized to contain much more, creating lighter, fluffier bread products.  It may be a change in the bacteria found within our digestive tracts, or it may simply be an awareness that symptoms we may be having are caused by the ingestion of gluten.

So what does gluten intolerance or sensitivity mean?  It means the gluten protein is misidentified by the immune system and the immune system goes into attack mode, trying to rid the body of the invader.  It is not unlike a pollen allergy where the body goes into offensive using its arsenal of histamines, inflammatory cytokines, antibodies and immunoglobulins to rid the body of the invader.  Only the symptoms of gluten intolerance are different than those of a pollen allergy.  Symptoms of gluten intolerance may include any one of/or many of the following:

Digestive Symptoms 

  • Acid reflux
  • Frequent burping, bloating or gas
  • Diagnosis of IBS (which is a label for not knowing what is wrong)
  • Chronically loose stool
  • Daily diarrhea or chronic constipation
  • Crohn’s disease or colitis

Neurologic & Skeletal Symptoms 

  • Migraine or headaches
  • Joint pain or aches
  • Brain fog
  • ADD/ADHD

Hormonal & Immune Symptoms

  • Depression or anxiety
  • Ongoing fatigue
  • Chronic eczema or acne
  • Low iron
  • Fertility issues

If you have any of these symptoms I would recommend seeing your doctor and asking for a Celiac disease screen, firstly.  Celiac disease produces not only symptoms, but is a physical attack on the micro-villi in the small intestine which leads to intestinal erosion and malabsorption of nutrients, so it is important to know whether you have it.  Celiac disease is an under diagnosed disease that 1 in 133 North Americans have and of those 1 in 133 people, only about 3% know they have it.  Hugely undiagnosed!  In order to test for Celiac disease you must still be eating a diet that contains gluten, as it is antibodies produced in response to gluten that are measured.

If you are tested for Celiac disease and the results are negative, but you still have any of the above symptoms, try eating a diet free of gluten.  Eliminate gluten from your diet for a two week period and see whether the symptoms you suffer from ease or disappear.  I know a number of people with IBS in the form of chronic intermittent diarrhea, acid reflux or anxiety who have seen their symptoms disappear while eating a gluten free diet.

If you find that you have Celiac disease or gluten intolerance, you will be relieved to find that it is much easier to eat gluten free than it was ten years ago.  There are many gluten free products on the market today.  It may be in your best interest to consult with a Nutritionist before starting a gluten free diet as there are as many unhealthy wheat free substitutes as there nutritious ones!