Gluten Intolerance IS NOT in Your Head.

July 14, 2014 at 4:41 pm / by

by Dahlia Shaaban, Nutrition Coachgluten-1

By now you’ve probably heard about gluten and why many folks are avoiding it these days.  The diet trend has increasingly become mainstream.  Perhaps you or someone you know has even explored going gluten free.

And with good reason.  Sensitivity to gluten, the protein found in wheat and related grains, including barley and rye, has been linked to a range of chronic inflammatory symptoms as diverse as gas, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, fatigue, goose bumps, dizziness, infertility, migraines, joint inflammation and even mood disorders.

As more folks experiment with kicking glutinous fare from their diets, the food and service industry has risen to accommodate consumers and provide gluten-free options.  The FDA has even defined the term ‘gluten free’ for food labeling, a regulation they will implement beginning in August 2014.

Like many diet trends come and gone, the gluten free diet has earned some recent backlash. Researchers are now speculating that gluten sensitivity may be a machination of the mind.

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So what gives? Do all of these people really have gluten intolerance?  If so, why now? What is going on?

Gluten sensitivity is a spectrum of disorders, ranging from Celiac Disease, in which people experience acute allergic reactions to consuming foods with gluten, to Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance (NCGI), in which people can experience a diversity of low-level chronic inflammatory responses that can accumulate over time in a virtual war of attrition in the GI tract and beyond.

Not everyone reacts the same way to the same antigen, in this case gluten, and folks can experience a wide array of symptoms and diseases.

Kathie Swift, Integrative Clinical Nutritionist explains that Celiac disease is a multi-system disorder associated with a number of disorders outside of the GI tract.  Research is needed to establish the correlation with other disorders, she explains in her book The Inside Tract, but the incidence of correspondence of Celiac with IBS, Type 1 diabetes, autoimmune, and thyroid disorders indicates that there may be some sort of connection.

But haven’t our ancestors enjoyed wheat and other gluten containing grains for millennia now? Why are more people reporting gluten sensitivity or receiving the Celiac disease diagnosis? Is the gluten sensitivity phenomenon just another first world problem?

Our ancestors first cultivated grains about 12-13,000 years ago along banks of Tigris River. First wheat and barley.  Later on oats. And significantly later rice, corn, and other grains.

And it is a good thing they did.  Naturalist and nutritionist John Bagnulo explains that up until this time humans subsisted on root veggies and tubers to provide calories for energy.  With the cultivation of grains and the use of fire to make them digestible, our ancestors were not only able to prevent famine during droughts but it allowed humankind to reach greater stature, with enlarged brains and all.

But here’s the thing: we no longer live and eat in the way our ancestors did.  While it’s important not to overly romanticize the lives of our ancestors (after all, with modern advancements in medicine and technology we enjoy a longer and more optimal quality of life) we must recognize that the quality of food we consume and the way we eat would be virtually unrecognizable to them. Remember our article “An Ode to Fats“? Specifically the section Fat Phobia and the Mis-Education of America where we took all the nutritional and grounding healthy fats out of our diet. And to what end?

Nutrition and public health experts speculate that the gluten sensitivity phenomenon can be attributed to a perfect storm of many environmental factors:

Folks are paying more attention. I can remember about 15 years ago when my mom went gluten free that the dietary modification was not mainstream at all.  Now with greater public awareness on gluten sensitivity, more people are experimenting with cutting gluten out of their lives and experiencing positive results that come with a cleaner, more conscious way of eating.

Hygiene hypothesis. Modern living has made us too clean.  Not only are we no longer out in nature the way our ancestors were, but we’re overexposed to antibiotics in our healthcare and food supply (say, for instance the routine use of antibiotics in factory farming). Our immune systems are not developing the antibodies needed to process gluten.

Erosion of diversity in gut flora. Research continues to establish the relationship between the diversity of microflora in our soil and that in our gut.  The microflora in our digestive tract are responsible for executing metabolic activities like extracting energy from the fermentation of undigested carbohydrates and the subsequent absorption of fatty acids. Our ecosystem has changed radically from that of our ancestors.  Modern farming practices have greatly eroded the quality and diversity of microflora in our soil.  Additionally, populations with the ability to stay in contact with nature have greater access to microbes on their skin and scalp and in their gut, increasing their ability to digest macronutrients like carbohydrates and gluten-containing grains.

The wheat we consume today is radically altered and nutrient-deficient compared to the wheat of our ancestors. In general modern farming practices have bred crops with shorter root structures in order to expedite maturation and maximize yield, fundamentally reducing their nutritional value.  Long rooted plants take longer to mature and have greater ability to absorb nutrients, minerals, trace minerals, and polyphenol content from deeper soil of earth.  Wheat is a great example within this phenomenon.  John Bagnulo explains that the ancestor to modern wheat is Einkorn wheat, with deeper root systems and more nutrients available.  Most of the wheat we consume today is Emmer wheat which is nutrient-deficient and our digestive systems struggle to process this lower quality wheat.

Foods are more gluten dense than they used to be.  Gluten in bread and other baked goods provides the very basic culinary functions of elasticity and cohesion. Baked goods on the market today have been crafted to have more gluten density to appeal to modern consumer preferences.

We’re not rotating our grains.  When we consume the same foods day in, day out, our digestive system begins to react and develop sensitivity.  Gluten specifically can be particularly inflammatory and create gas and bloating. That food becomes an antigen and provokes an immune system response. In other words, folks develop gluten sensitivity when they consume an excess of gluten-rich foods in their diet.

These factors are some of many that have led to the gluten sensitivity phenomenon.

So sure, it may make sense to experiment with cutting out wheat and other glutinous foods from your diet.  Be careful however to not miss the forest for the trees. There is nutritional wisdom in all diet trends.  The gluten issue is an indicator of more troubling trends in a greater environmental and public health landscape.

Also know that an entire industry has come up around the gluten free movement, flooding the market with hyper-refined, processed gluten-free junk food, like crackers, cookies, etc that isn’t much better, or perhaps even worse than its glutinous counterparts.

Wherever you fall on the spectrum of gluten sensitivity, know that if we can learn anything from the gluten free trend, it’s important to be very careful with the quality and diversity of ingredients in your diet. Do your best to incorporate a diversity of clean whole foods into your diet and avoid the hyper-refined junk. When consuming grains be sure to rotate them frequently and diversify.

Grains are inflammatory by nature, and if you’re consuming the same grain, you will develop a sensitivity to it. The least inflammatory of all grains are buckwheat and wild rice.  But easy there slugger, if buckwheat and wild rice are the only grains you’re eating, you’ll eventually develop a sensitivity to them, too. Always keep it fresh and keep it moving. Rotating grains is key.

So get out there kiddo and explore the wondrous diversity of all the grains in the bulk food aisle of your local health food store.  Be curious, be adventurous, be inspired in your culinary prowess.

Your body will surely thank you.  To your health!

 
 

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