What exactly is gluten and why is there so much pop culture around going gluten-free? Is it the next fad diet or is there legitimate research backing up the claims to ditch the wheat?
Let’s start with the basics. The word gluten is from the Latin language and translates to “glue” (1). Specifically, it is a protein found in wheat and related grains. Gluten is the protein portion of wheat and other grains like:
- graham flour,
- bulgar, and
Wheat is 10–15% protein. (2) The remaining 85–95% of wheat is a starch. When you remove all of the starch found in wheat, what you’re left with is the gluten protein.
Contrary to popular belief, gluten is not a protein unto itself. Instead, it is a complex mixture of hundreds of distinct proteins. (3) One way to think of it is as a storage protein. Other crops have similar storage proteins: in oats, it is called an avenin. In rye, it is a secalin. For simplicity, the crops storage protein is all referred to as gluten.
The part of gluten that gives the body so much trouble is an alcohol-soluble protein called gliadin. Gliadin is a part of the gluten protein. This particular chain is incredibly hard for the body to break down and digest. Even after all the body’s digestive processes, some proteins (like gliadin) remain intact. It is this incomplete digestion of the protein that is thought to cause celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
To further complicate the study of gluten illnesses, there are more proteins than just gliadin that the body can react to. At the time of this writing, researchers have yet to uncover methods for testing the body’s reaction to all the gluten/wheat proteins. The majority of research looks specifically at the gliadin protein. Often, the research does not study any other wheat protein.
Can anyone properly digest gluten?
When we eat a protein, our body breaks the protein down into single amino acids. These amino acids are then easily absorbed into the small intestine. The gluten protein is resistant to the enzymes our body uses to break down proteins. I argue that this occurs because humans have not consumed grains long enough (from an evolutionary perspective). you can get more information from this post.
When gluten is partially digested, the body is left with a 33 undigested amino acid chain. This chain is also known as the toxic fraction of gliadin. (4) It is here that this fragment lodges itself under the epithelial cells lining the villi of the small intestine. In genetically susceptible individuals, this is where their immune system is triggered. The activated immune system starts to inflame and destroy the intestinal villi.
Now, you know that the gluten protein is not fully digested by our body. It is this partial digestion that alarms our immune system. With the immune system armed and attacking the wheat protein, inflammation results.
At this point you make be thinking: “If eating wheat/gluten causes inflammation, shouldn’t we all avoid it?”. Inflammation due to an immune response is happening inside our body at all times. Think of the last time you exercised. This increased inflammation within your body. It is only in suceptible individuals that this inflammation becomes problematic.
With all that joy it brings to our palate, is the same bliss passed on to the rest of our body?
If we turn to our evolutionary heritage, it paints an interesting picture of wheat in the context of the human diet.
The agricultural revolution occurred in from 1750–19th century. This was a time when our human civilization transitioned from the Paleolithic era (where we were hunters and gatherers) to a model that more resembles what see today. More specifically, we transitioned from eating seasonal fruits/vegetables and meat to agricultural crops — specifically wheat and wheat-related products.
It is currently estimated that Homo sapiens (the modern form of humans) evolved some two hundred thousand years ago. From that time they are thought to have been primarily hunter-gatherers — eating a varied diet of fruits, vegetables, and meats. Throughout that time our bodies — and the bacteria inside our guts — adapted to the above food groups.
To contrast, wheat and other industrialized products have been in our diet for less than 1% of our existence on this planet. Put another way, if you imagine human existence to be the length of a football field, we’ve only eaten wheat and its related products for less than the last half-yard of that field.
This is the current hypothesis as to why we are collectively having challenges with wheat in our diets — our digestive tracts have not yet caught up (in an evolutionary sense) to the foods we eat in the modern world. Our bodies are still adapted to eat fruits, vegetables, and meats.
So does this mean we should all immediately jump on the gluten free wagon? Fortunately, no; as each of us has evolved in different lineages, we all react to wheat in individual ways. Some of us react with upset stomachs, others with no symptoms at all.
The way the gluten protein reacts in your body is unique to you. Which brings up the question: How do I know if gluten is bad for me?
Our next post will address this very topic. You can find it here.
Originally published at Flourish Clinic.