Info and Insights on the Gluten-Free Diet:
“Gluten-free” has become quite the buzzword in recent years. As a Nutritionist, I can’t even count the number of times someone has asked me, “Do I really need to go gluten-free? Is that even a real problem?”. It’s hard to know what’s just a trend and what’s a reasonable health concern, so I’m here to shed a little light on this and explain why it’s therapeutically necessary for some people to go gluten-free and how others might find unexpected benefits from it.
If you’re not familiar with the principals of the gluten-free diet, it means avoiding any foods that contain wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is a protein found in all of these grains. Though oats do not naturally contain gluten they are often cross- contaminated with those grains that do, so choosing certified gluten-free oats is another important part of the gluten-free diet. So, why do people go gluten-free in the first place? And is it a diet everyone should follow?
The most common reason to go gluten-free is Celiac Disease. This is an autoimmune disease where eating gluten causes the body to attack it’s own small intestine, causing damage to the intestinal villi that are responsible for absorbing nutrients from your food. Obviously, when these become damaged your whole body can become malnourished and many subsequent health problems can arise.
While most assume the symptoms of Celiac are purely related to the digestive system, there are many others that can occur throughout the whole body that are equally concerning. Gas, diarrhea or IBS-like symptoms are common issues for those with Celiac, but joint pain, ADHD, depression or anxiety, headaches, brain fog, mouth sores, and itchy, blistering skin rashes like Dermatitis Herpetiformis (DH) are other symptoms that arise from undiagnosed Celiac Disease.
Celiac Disease can also be a contributing factor to infertility and can negatively affect growth and development in children. It’s diagnosed using a blood test that identifies specific antibodies, and usually, your doctor will order an additional biopsy of the small intestine to confirm the diagnosis. The key remedy is to completely eliminate gluten from the diet and the damage normally heals in time, though not always.
Other Health Reasons to Go Gluten-Free
Unfortunately, the health issues of gluten can span much wider than just Celiac Disease. There are plenty of people, myself included, who do not have Celiac but do have gluten sensitivity. This means we don’t have those antibodies, but we have a variety of those same symptoms that were resolved after removing gluten from our diets.
A sensitivity is not an allergy, as it doesn’t involve the same biological response. With both Celiac Disease and gluten sensitivity, a person who eats something containing gluten may not experience symptoms until days afterward. This can make it extra hard to pinpoint the cause of these issues. To make matters more complex, sometimes those with these gluten issues may not have any symptoms at all, while internal damage is still occurring.
A wheat allergy, on the other hand, is an immune response to any proteins found in wheat (not just the gluten) and will result in a more immediate reaction, anywhere from 2 minutes to two hours after eating something with wheat. This is the nature of other food allergies as well.
There is no way to officially diagnose gluten sensitivity. The best method for identifying this sort of intolerance is to keep a food journal, logging your daily diet along with symptoms, and then eliminating gluten from your diet for at least 3 weeks while continuing to journal how you feel. If the symptoms recede when gluten is eliminated, you can see how it’s easy for you to see how certain foods have been negatively affecting your body.
The good news that most of you have probably been waiting for is right here: No, I do not think every single person needs to eat gluten-free. I DO think, since an estimated 99% of people who have a gluten-intolerance go undiagnosed, it wouldn’t hurt for everyone to give it a shot for a few weeks to see how they feel. I also strongly feel that individuals with certain health conditions should seriously consider it for the sake of their overall health.
Hashimotos and Hypothyroidism
When it comes to gluten sensitivity, there are some people who are more likely to have it. Those with auto-immune diseases, especially Hashimoto’s thyroiditis which I personally have, are at an increased for experiencing the negative effects of gluten.
With this disease, your body mistakenly attacks your own thyroid and decreases your production of much-needed thyroid hormones. The gluten protein is very sneaky, and since gluten and the thyroid gland are molecularly very similar (called molecular mimicry) when you eat gluten your body doesn’t just attack the gluten molecules, it starts attacking your thyroid gland as well. Basically, your immune system is being over reactive – it thinks it’s doing a super good job, but it’s actually hurting you in the process.
As this process destroys thyroid tissue, decreases hormone production, and leads to full-blown hypothyroidism. If you have Hashimoto’s that hasn’t yet turned into hypothyroidism, you might be able to halt that progression by going gluten-free. If you already have both, you could still find dramatic improvements in your healthy by giving up gluten and reducing the inflammation and continuous destruction of your thyroid.
How Does Gluten Cause Damage?
This leads me to my next point about gluten – it has been found to produce inflammation in the intestines and contribute to a condition known as “Leaky Gut”, which allows small particles of food to leak through the intestinal barrier and into the bloodstream.
Like I talked about before, these particles are seen as invaders and they set off an inflammatory immune reaction. Hashimoto’s aside, these are major gluten-related concerns for everyone since inflammation is the root cause of most diseases. For this reason, anyone struggling with multiple food sensitivities, absorption issues, digestive problems, autoimmunity, or any chronic inflammatory disease like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, and heart disease, to name a few, might find great benefits from a gluten-free diet.
Also, many people with an intolerance to dairy find they also have issues with gluten, whether it’s Celiac or gluten sensitivity and vice versa. This is once again due to the similar structure of protein molecules in these two foods, which confuses the body and causes an overactive immune response and subsequent inflammation.
Dr. David Perlmutter wrote a book called Grain Brain, in which he discusses the effects of gluten and grains in general on cognition, memory, and overall brain inflammation. He saw some amazing results in these areas when putting patients on a gluten-free diet, so add that to the list of benefits a gluten-free diet has been proven to have.
Modern Day Gluten
Some gluten-free skeptics feel that this way of eating is just a trend, especially since it’s a relatively modern disorder that our grandparents never had to worry about. There’s actually a good (but bad) reason for this – scientists have created hybrid strains of wheat, with new kinds of gluten, and way more gluten, that our ancestors were never exposed to. The end result is fluffier baked goods with a hyper-palatable texture and the constant inclusion of gluten in modern day foods. Another reason for this current influx of gluten awareness is that we have more advanced testing methods to identify what might be causing our symptoms.
Taking a look at gluten from an international perspective, many people have issues eating American products that contain gluten while similar foods in other parts of the world, such as Europe, don’t create the same symptoms. This circles back to the hybridization of wheat and other grain crops and the American agricultural system.
Europe mostly produces soft wheat and heirloom varieties, while America focuses mainly on hard red wheat. Soft and heirloom types of wheat naturally contain less gluten, while American farmers are choosing the hybridized high-gluten wheat to meet the demand of food manufacturers. So, those with gluten-intolerance traveling abroad may notice they don’t have the same reaction, however, anyone with Celiac Disease should still permanently abstain from eating any type of gluten at all.
So, where does that leave you and gluten? I’m a firm believer in individualized nutrition – there is no one-size-fits-all diet and I think each person needs to be mindful and intuitive when it comes to what foods they choose to put in their body. With that being said, trying a gluten-free diet is a safe way to see how certain foods affect you, so if you’re curious why not just give it a shot? I’m pretty sure you’ll still be able to find delicious recipes…maybe on a certain super cool blog…eh hem, like this one? Adjusting your diet doesn’t have to mean eating cardboard! It just takes a little time to learn about new foods and kitchen hacks.
Gluten is hidden in everythinnngggg, so it takes a lot of label reading and list learning to be sure you’re not consuming it. Digging into the vastness of how to safely eat gluten-free is beyond the scope of this article, so reach out to me personally if you’d like some more help with that.
Please feel free to leave a comment or question below, and if you’d like individualized nutrition therapy go to my Work With Me page and shoot me an e-mail! Gluten-free or not, I’d love to help you find a better relationship with your food and feel your best.