Gluten is a difficult-to-digest protein found in the following grains: wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oats*. “Gluten” comes from the Latin word for glue, and its these glue-like properties that hold bread and cake together. But these same properties interfere with the breakdown and absorption of nutrients, including the nutrients from other foods in the same meal.
Gluten triggers inflammatory reactions in people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
Digestive issues such as gas, bloating, diarrhoea, constipation (particularly in gluten-sensitive children) and diverticulitis,
Keratosis Pilaris (also known as ‘chicken skin’ on the back of your arms). This tends be as a result of a fatty acid deficiency and vitamin A deficiency secondary to fat-malabsorption caused by gluten damaging the gut,
Fatigue, brain fog or feeling tired after eating a meal that contains gluten,
Autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Rheumatoid arthritis, Ulcerative colitis, Chrohn’s Disease, Lupus, Psoriasis, Scleroderma or Multiple sclerosis,
Neurological symptoms such as dizziness or feeling off balance,
Hormone imbalances such as PMS, PCOS or unexplained infertility,
Migraine headaches, fibromyalgia, inflammation, swelling or pain in your joints such as fingers, knees or hips,
Mood and behavioural issues such as anxiety, depression, mood swings and ADD.
More than 55 diseases have been linked to gluten and it is also estimated that as much as 15% of the US population is gluten intolerant.
*Oats are technically gluten-free – but since they are often processed in the same facilities as gluten grains, there is the risk of cross-contamination. You can find certified gluten-free oats.
As a starting point, it is important to realise that it is not your stomach that digests food – it is your intestines (or gut). It is the stomach’s job to break down the food into microscopic particles which can then be effectively digested (by enzymes and the bacteria in your gut) and then, absorbed into the bloodstream through the lining in your intestines.
So, just as gluten holds the ingredients of bread together it also holds together the other food you have eaten with it. This creates a difficult-to-digest ‘lump’ in your stomach, which is then passed on as only ‘partially digested’ food to your gut. Partially digested means there are bigger particles of food than can be effectively absorbed by the intestines. The big particles of partially digested gluten are seen as foreign invaders by your immune system, which in turn triggers inflammation of the gut lining in an attempt to protect your body from these ‘invaders’. These partially digested food particles also spend longer in the gut than they should, causing them to ‘rot’. All this can cause symptoms like diarrhoea or constipation, nausea, and abdominal pain.
The undigested gluten particles irritate your gut and flatten the microvilli (tiny ‘hairs’) along the small intestine wall. Without those microvilli, you have considerably less surface area with which to absorb the nutrients from your food.
Gluten intolerance is used when referring to the entire category of gluten issues: celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy.
A wheat allergy causes the immune system to respond to a food protein because it considers it dangerous to the body. This immune response is often time-limited and does not cause lasting harm to body tissues.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive process of the small intestine. Essentially it is an allergic reaction to gluten and is characterised by an immune response and intestinal tissue damage. It can be detected via a biopsy. Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (what many call “gluten intolerance”) causes the body to mount a stress response (not an immune response). It isn’t a food allergy – it’s a physical condition in your gut. This may be due to an imbalance in the microflora of your gut, an already damaged gut lining or, a genetic predisposition.
If you remove gluten from the diet, repopulate the microflora and, seal the damaged gut lining, the gut heals and the symptoms disappear. Depending on the level and degree of the intolerance it may be possible to eventually re-introduce properly prepared grains into the diet.
“Waiting until after infancy to introduce grains into a child’s diet, raising children on nutrient-dense diets that include liberal amounts of fat-soluble vitamins (especially vitamin A), and keeping good care of intestinal flora may all help prevent celiac disease and non-celiac gluten intolerance in those who are genetically susceptible.”
– Chris Masterjohn
It must be noted that sugar, antibiotics, environmental toxins, and other allergens (like GMO’s, synthetic food additives, transfats etc.) all contribute to imbalanced intestinal flora which can lead to gluten-intolerance (see the Why Not Sugar section next).
I am gluten intolerant (due to a damaged gut lining and gut dysbiosis), which is why I follow a gluten-free diet. As mentioned in the introduction of this book, Mila’s ‘green poo’ alerted me to the fact that she might be too. Whether this is a genetic predisposition inherited from me, or because her microflora was out of balance from birth (again, thanks to me), I chose to feed her a gluten-free diet. I also strongly believe that anything which can potentially damage the digestive system and negatively affect the immune system should be avoided, full stop. Why burden the body unnecessarily? Especially in children, whose digestive and immune systems are still developing.
And besides, gluten just is not necessary.