The Gluten-Free Diet and Digestive Health
The gluten-free movement has gained ground quickly over the past few years, but this is more than a flash-in-the-pan fad dietary trend. For a large segment of the population, there are some very good reasons to go gluten-free that have nothing to do with trending popularity and everything to do with overall health.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley, and oats that are not labeled gluten-free. (Oats are naturally gluten-free—the gluten found in oats comes from field contamination and processing.)
Gluten is also in bulgur, couscous, dinkel (spelt), durum, einkorn, emmer, farina, farro, fu, gluten flour, graham flour (not gram flour), Kamut, malt, matzo meal, orzo, seitan, semolina, spelt (dinkel), and triticale.
It used to be very difficult to make appetizing gluten-free baked goods. After trying gluten-free products years ago, some individuals swore that they would never eat anything gluten-free again. Those early products were dense and tasteless and characterized as “heavy as a brick.” (The dynamic duo of yeast and gluten are responsible for the light and airy texture in bread products.)
Those heavy days are over (for the most part). There are tastier and lighter products on the market today that are just as good, if not better, than their gluten counterparts. This causes many people to rethink the gluten-free diet.
Why go gluten-free?
There are several reasons an individual may begin a gluten-free diet. The usual reason is when a person has some form of gluten intolerance. This can manifest in a few ways. The first, and most serious, is as celiac disease, an autoimmune disease where gluten destroys the small intestines—celiac can have over 200 signs and symptoms, ranging from zero to serious, including malnutrition, even death.
Gluten sensitivity is a milder form than celiac and shows up with less obvious symptoms such as indigestion, bloating, headaches, pain, fatigue, and insomnia. A final cause of gluten intolerance would be an allergy to wheat.
Others find the diet to be beneficial for weight loss—but this only works if you skip all of the gluten-free goodies that are high in starch and sugar. This leaves one with a diet closer to the paleo (caveman) diet: fruit, vegetables, meat, and nuts.
What if you do not fall into any of the above categories? What are the benefits for you? You will find many alternative (and some traditional) doctors saying that gluten is bad for everyone and results in digestive problems and chronic pain. Because millions of people are affected by gluten and do not realize it, it is important to understand how gluten is digested in those with any degree of gluten intolerance. Per Daniel Leffler, MD, MS, a celiac disease expert at Harvard Medical School, “Gluten is fairly indigestible in all people. There’s probably some kind of gluten intolerance in all of us.” With that in mind, many individuals are avoiding gluten grains.
All grains contain protein, but wheat, barley, and rye contain proteins that do not break down even with the help of digestive enzymes. In wheat, the protein is gliadin; in rye, secalin; and in barley, hordein.
In those with gluten sensitivity, gluten is not digested properly in the upper small intestine. Instead, it combines with digestive enzymes and is viewed by the immune system as a foreign substance. Then the immune system is triggered to attack this assumed invader, inflaming the walls of the small intestines.
Gluten digestion and inflammation
Since it is suggested that gluten is difficult to digest for all of us—even those of us with proper digestive enzymes—a gluten-free diet may be the key to your health. Improper digestion leads to acid buildup which, when chronic, may lead to inflammation in the body that in turn leads to an imbalance in hormones. Our hormones are regulated by our endocrine system (the adrenal, pancreas, pituitary, and thyroid glands)—the endocrine system regulates all our organs.
It is suggested that chronic inflammation is the precursor to disease, and that inflammation is evidenced by diseases in general, especially autoimmune diseases. Consider them: arthritis is inflammation of the joints, fibromyalgia is inflammation of the muscle and tissues, Crohn’s disease is inflammation of the digestive tract, and there are many more. An autoimmune reaction is even being considered as one of the possible causes of Alzheimer’s disease (inflammation of the brain). In addition, inflammatory markers are now considered as an emerging risk factor in heart disease, and have proven to be a risk factor in cancer.
Many alternative medical doctors believe that mild gluten sensitivity symptoms are a warning sign of more serious gluten intolerance symptoms to come, as well as disease. They suggest avoiding gluten altogether now before your symptoms worsen and disease and/or gluten intolerance develops.
Things to know when going gluten-free
If you decide to start a gluten-free diet, you must not only avoid the list of grains above, but several products and ingredients which contain gluten. You will find gluten in the most unexpected places. It can be hidden in broth/bouillon, herbal teas, beer, ice cream, sauces/gravy, medication, candy/licorice, chocolate, French fries, soy sauce, flour-coated dried fruit, commercial rice mixes, maltodextrin derived from wheat, pudding, salad dressing, malt vinegar, light sour cream, yogurt, and many more.
The healthiest approach to a gluten-free diet is eating nutrient-rich foods balanced in vitamins and minerals. Skip the high-carb, high-glycemic foods like baked goods and bread. Instead opt for foods high in calcium like milk, sardines, salmon, broccoli, collard greens, almonds, amaranth, teff, and quinoa. Also look for foods high in iron such as meat, fish, chicken, beans, seeds, eggs, amaranth, quinoa, and teff. Foods high in B vitamins should also be on your list: these include eggs, milk, meat, fish, 100-percent orange juice, beans, nuts, seeds, and gluten-free whole grains. Finally, you should eat foods high in vitamin D like egg yolks, salmon, sardines, and tuna; and foods high in fiber like vegetables, fruit, beans, amaranth, millet, buckwheat, sorghum, teff, quinoa, chia, and ground flax.
If you are experiencing any digestive issues or have an autoimmune disease, chronic pain, or symptoms that a professional has not been able to diagnose, speak with your doctor about trying a trial gluten-free diet for at least two weeks, though four weeks is better.
This is to be done without cheating. If your symptoms improve then you have your answer. If your symptoms do not disappear totally, note that the digestive tract may need additional time to repair or you may have additional food intolerances or allergies. Dairy is often a culprit.
Give it a try. You owe your digestive health, and the rest of your body, a fighting chance.
Carla Spacher is a gluten-free consultant, professional recipe developer, researcher/writer, and founder of the popular gluten-free blog, glutenfreerecipebox.com.