What’s all the fuss about gluten?

You can be eating something that can be dangerous for you and might not even know it. If you were drinking a can of Coke, having Coco Pops for breakfast and a pizza for dinner, there’s a good chance you know you’re shortening your life. On the other hand if you’re eating whole meal bread for breakfast, a multi-grain wrap for lunch and pasta for dinner how can that be bad for you right?

The thing is whole meal bread, wraps, pasta’s and other processed foods often marketed as healthy and low-GI today contain gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. If you look at the healthy food pyramid these foods are staples in the Australian nutritional guidelines.

But what if you’re feeling bloated, sluggish, have brain fog, struggling to lose weight and have headaches would you keep having it even if it was marketed as healthy? What most people don’t realise is that gluten can cause health complications even if you haven’t been diagnosed with gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

What really made me get serious about paying attention to gluten was when I introduced to the health complication it could cause form one of my mentors, how good I felt when I was off it and then how much it negatively effected me both mentally and physically when I introduced it.

This made me look further and further into the subject reading and listening to Dr Tom O’Bryan’s material who is a leading authority on the subject of gluten and at each and every functional health and nutrition seminar I went to gluten sensitivity and gut health was always a subject that came up when it came to health and performance.

Below are some hard truths about gluten and information about what you can do to determine if gluten is good or bad for you.

The difference between gluten sensitivity and celiac disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system starts to attack its own tissue such as the small intestine when gluten is present. When that happens, your body’s villi which are shaped as tiny fingers lined up within your small intestinal wall become damaged and flattened. The reason why this is important is because these tiny finger shaped villi’s absorb the vitamins and nutrients from the foods that you eat which pass through the small intestine.

Healthy villi is good for nutrient absorption from foods. An unhealthy or flattened villi and those tiny shaped fingers are less likely to be able to go out and grab and absorb these nutrients.

When the villi becomes damaged or inflamed, in this case when a celiac eats gluten the villi cannot absorb as much nutrients from the foods they eat. In some cases this is an inability to absorb nutrients, loss of vitamins and minerals; all of which may lead to other problems such as anaemia and osteoporosis in a celiac.

Gluten sensitivity or non celiac gluten sensitivity is when the body has an inflammatory response to the gluten protein when it’s ingested. This inflammatory response happens within the gut and the digestive system. The difference between gluten sensitivity and celiacs is that the immune system doesn’t automatically attack the body’s tissue and small intestinal wall but instead reacts to the gluten protein itself within the gut; and that causes inflammation.

When inflammation occurs within the gut, symptoms such as bloating and gassing occur. If the irritation and inflammation happens often enough it can also lead to damage to the villi and gut lining; called leaky gut. Basically undigested food particles such as gluten now flowing from the digestive system into the blood stream instead of being digested within the gut.

Because the body’s immune system isn’t use to undigested food particles, pathogens and toxins floating within the blood stream it will then go out and attack these cells because it thinks that they’re a foreign invader. It will then also tag these proteins such as gluten and develop antibodies to remember them for next time.

On the left is a healthy gut lining, tight junctions so pathogens and food particles can’t pass through the intestinal wall. In the middle is an example of leaky gut where inflammation within the gut has caused the tight junctions to loosen where pathogens and undigested food particles can pass through in the blood stream.

In a process called molecular mimicry the body also has protein cells which are similar to gluten so when the immune system sends out it’s army to destroy gluten proteins floating within the bloodstream it will also go and attack other similar proteins which can be located all throughout the body such as the thyroid glands which can lead to hashimoto’s, small intestine which can lead to the development of chrones and the pancreas which can lead to diabetes.

So when someone is sensitive to gluten it may not necessarily be that they feel irritation in the gut but it can also affect them in other ways such as joint pain, decreased energy levels and neurologically.

A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 diseases that can be caused by eating gluten. Among them include depression, schizophrenia, epilepsy, migraines, anxiety, autism and irritable bowel disease.

What’s the big deal about going gluten-free?

Gluten, just like everything else that may make you feel sick is a poison. When it’s removed from a diet the person can feel better and the symptoms that come with gluten sensitivity can go away. It’s stipulated in the Formula 1 drivers contract for McLaren that they have to be gluten free; they know it can effect the reaction times of the drivers.

I won’t just stop there though, here are some other key points.

If cognitive function is of prime importance to you, some of your brain proteins look similar to gliadin, the protein found in gluten so when anti-gliaden antibodies go on the hunt for gliadin it doesn’t know the difference between the two proteins which could potentially eat up the brain proteins which are required for normal cognitive function. Going gluten free won’t make you smarter but it can help protect your cognitive function.

If you value training performance, optimal health and body composition and you’re sensitive to gluten then gluten is going to eat away at your gut lining. If it’s then damaged you’re not going to absorb the nutrients that are going to support your training performance, functional health and body composition. If you don’t break down and absorb proteins and fats properly, you miss out essential amino acids which are needed to help support the rebuilding of muscles from training and detoxification. If you miss out absorbing fats then you miss out on absorbing the building blocks of important hormones such as testosterone and estrogen.

Gluten and gluteomorphins can play a role in down regulating your sensitivity to release endorphins the feel good hormone in your brain which can lead to depression and not thriving on life. Gluteomorphins are a strain within the gluten protein and they’re called gluteomorphines because they bind the opioid receptor sites in the brain like morphine. So what happens is that when these gluteomorphines bind to the opiod receptor sites in the brain they release endorphin's, the feel good hormones in the brain. You feel good and that’s awesome but what happens when you have bread for breakfast, a wrap for lunch and pasta for dinner, day, after day, after day, after day? Endorphin's continually get released but over time it down regulates the receptor site which means it stops working, or you need more and more of it to produce endorphin's.

So naturally if you produce endorphin's from everyday activities such as working out it just doesn’t happen, you need to work out more and more to produce the same amount of endorphin's as before, so instead, you crave gluten.

A study comparing the blood of 10,000 people from 50 years ago to 10,000 people from today found that incidences of celiac disease has increased by 400%. Not much has changed from 50 years ago though we do now have easier access to pizza, baguettes, wraps and toast.

The history of food and gluten, where does it fit in?

It doesn’t, humans have been hunter gatherers for more than 99.9% of our history. For millions of years we’ve lived on fruits, animal proteins, vegetables, bone marrows, seafood and herbs. Anything that was in close proximity to our tribe.

Gluten containing grains, wheat, rye and barley were not introduced into the diet until about 10,000 years ago due to the introduction of agriculture. Although our bodies have somewhat adapted to grains and some tolerate it better than others it is still a form of stress and inflammation within the body if you are sensitive to it.

An accumulation of stress can take it’s toll on the body, either somewhere else or on later down the track.

My stance on gluten?

Being overweight in the past, eating gluten and eating highly processed foods affected my health. I mentally function better, I’m not as groggy and my body functions better without it.

The only way for me to know this was to eliminate ingesting gluten completely for 2–3 weeks. I’d feel great and then when I introduced it back in I wouldn’t feel as optimal.

What about having just a little bit or in moderation?

When a food such as gluten triggers an auto immune response sometimes you can’t just have a little bit of it or have it in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Gluten can stay in your system for up to 6-months after ingestion.

Do you want to learn more about gluten and if it’s affecting your health? Below are some podcasts that you can listen to:

Gluten Sensitivity, Celiacs and Bulletproofing Your Gut

Gluten, Autoimmunity & Leaky Gut