wheatGluten-free diets and gluten-free menus at restaurants have become more and more prevalent. So what is gluten and what’s the big deal?

Gluten is a sticky protein found in wheat. The prevalence of wheat and wheat products, especially processed and refined varieties, have led to a greater percentage of the population developing gluten intolerance or an allergy to gluten.

Celiac Disease

This gluten allergy is known as celiac disease and is a serious digestive disorder that is increasing around the world.

According to the National Institute of Diabetes, Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), celiac disease affects 1 in 133 people in the US. Having a first-degree relative with the disease increases the rate of celiac disease to 1 in 22.

Around the globe, 1 in 200 people have celiac disease and because of its genetic component, it’s likely that the incidence of the disease will continue to climb as it is passed down through the generations. That is, unless something is done to change the diet in the family tree.

Celiac disease exists in higher rates in cultures that eat a lot of wheat: the Italian culture for instance. It’s been climbing in America due to the high proportion of wheat gluten in a multitude of our food products, supplements and health and beauty products.

In celiac disease, gluten causes an immune reaction that targets the intestinal villi. These finger-like projections are responsible for nutrient absorption. The damage flattens the villi over time so malnutrition is a serious result of celiac disease.

Celiac disease is also known as celiac sprue, nontropical sprue and gluten-sensitive enteropathy. It is sometimes triggered or activated by childbirth, pregnancy, severe emotional stress, surgery or a viral infection, according to the NIDDK.

Because celiac disease is linked to malnutrition; it affects every system in the body. The symptoms are so diverse that many people (and their doctors) are unaware that the disease is present.

Possible symptoms include:

  • Abdominal bloating and pain
  • Anxiety
  • Arthritis
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Canker sores
  • Chronic diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Delayed growth and development
  • Depression
  • Fatigue
  • Infertility
  • Irritability
  • Miscarriage
  • Missed menstrual periods
  • Numbness in the extremities
  • Osteoporosis
  • Mucous excess
  • Pale, foul-smelling or fatty stool
  • Seizures
  • Skin rashes
  • Tooth enamel defects
  • Unexplained iron-deficiency anemia
  • Weight loss
  • Vomiting

People that don’t exhibit any symptoms can still suffer the consequences of malnutrition and develop anemia, cancers, liver disease and osteoporosis. The length of time someone was breast-fed can influence the severity and first appearance of celiac disease, with shorter periods (and sooner exposure to formulas and cereals) leading to earlier incidences.

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance is 30 times more prevalent than celiac disease. 1 in 7 people are sensitive to gluten but test negative for celiac disease. They suffer many of the same symptoms and are known as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitive (NCGS).

People of European or Anglo-Celtic ancestry are more likely to have gluten intolerance or celiac disease in their families.

Some people can avoid gluten for awhile so that their intestinal villi can recover and then slowly introduce wheat products again to a lesser degree. The NIDDK estimates that it takes 3 to 6 months for the intestinal villi in children to heal but repair can take several years in adults.

Others, however, may have irreversible damage or a strong genetic sensitivity. Refractory celiac disease is what people with severe intestinal damage have.

Using ancient grains and fermenting them for a long time before cooking decrease the likelihood of gluten problems.

Causes of Celiac Disease and Gluten Intolerance

In 1996, celiac disease and gluten intolerance were considered rare and uncommon genetic disorders. Today, the National Institutes of Health say that the celiac disease is still “widely unrecognized” and “greatly under-diagnosed.”

Wheat is a highly subsidized crop and hybridization methods and genetic engineering have been used to grow wheat that is fungal-resistant, easy to harvest and process and of high yield. It is also much lower in nutrients.

White bread was once considered a symbol of wealth, with the poor eating rye and darker grains they had threshed and pounded themselves. By the 1800’s, no one was baking bread at home from scratch and the advent of processed and refined wheat products took over the US in the 1900’s. Industrial methods of preparing bread and other wheat products demanded high-gluten and low-husk grains.

The traditional methods of soaking, sprouting and souring grains in order to make them digestible and nutritious has been abandoned for a fast and convenient method of mass producing food.

In 1924, Rudolf Steiner commented that “under the influence of our modern philosophy of materialism…agricultural products on which our life depends have degenerated extremely rapidly…Even farmers…can calculate in how many decades their products will have degenerated to such an extent that they no longer serve as human nourishment. It will certainly be within this century.”

Researchers are investigating the possibility that traditional preparation methods and the probiotics they generate may alter the toxic peptides responsible for gluten intolerance and celiac disease.

Chris Masterjohn, editor of the website Cholesterol and Health, outlines three theories about the development of gluten intolerance:

1) Some of us may have a gene that causes our immune system to look on gluten protein as a microbial invader.

2) Antibiotic use and indigestible food intake may damage intestinal probiotic bacteria. Feeding infants grains before they are able to truly digest them may increase the risk of dysbiosis: damaged gut flora.

3) Low-nutrient diets may interfere with the suppression of certain immune cells that attack harmless proteins.

Processed and refined foods commonly contain gluten, but it’s not just bread and pasta!

Avoiding Gluten

To allow intestinal villi to recover; stay away from:

  • Wheat—including barley, einkorn, emmer, rye, spelt and triticale
  • Wheat Products: bran, bromated flour, durum flour, enriched flour, farina, phosphate flour, plain flour, self-rising flour, and white flour.
  • Beer, ale, etc.
  • Malt

Gluten is added as a filler and binding agent in many, many processed food products.

Hidden sources of gluten include:

Artificial coffee creamer Pasta side dishes Soy sauce
Bouillion cubes French Fries Salad dressing
Brown rice syrup Gravies Seitan
Candy Imitation seafood Self-basting turkey
Chewing gum Hot dogs Certain ground spices
Chips Kamut Certain veined cheeses
Cold cuts Ketchup Tomato sauces
Mustard Mayonnaise Vegetable cooking spray
Fish Sticks Matzo Flavored instant coffee
Rice mixes Flavored teas Flavored rice

Gluten hides on food labels as:

  • Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)
  • Modified food starch (source is either corn or wheat)
  • Mustard powder (some contain gluten)
  • Monosodium Glutamate (MSG)
  • Gelatinized starch
  • Natural flavoring, fillers
  • Whey protein concentrate
  • Whey sodium caseinate
  • White vinegar or white grain vinegar
  • Rice malt (contains barley or Koji)
  • Rice syrup (contains barley enzymes)
  • Dextrin, malt, maltodextrin

Non-food items that contain gluten are:

  • Glue on stamps and envelopes
  • Laundry detergent
  • Lip balms
  • Lotions
  • Makeup
  • Medications
  • Mouthwash
  • Playdough
  • Shampoo
  • Soap
  • Sunscreens
  • Toothpaste
  • Low quality vitamins and supplements

So what can you eat?

If you are familiar with my Healing Foods diet, you know that I recommend staying away from any grains as much as possible. Vegetables and fruits are far more nutrient dense.

The following grains, the flours made from them, these binders and other carbohydrates are gluten-free:

  • Arrowroot
  • Legumes
  • Buckwheat
  • Amaranth
  • Seeds
  • Millet
  • Nuts
  • Sorghum
  • Corn
  • Potatoes
  • Tapioca
  • Flax
  • Quinoa
  • Wild rice
  • Indian rice
  • Non-refined rice
  • Yucca

New Research

Scientists have found a link between celiac disease and Type I diabetes. As many as 10% of children with Type I diabetes also have celiac disease and evidence is growing that Type I diabetes may be triggered by gluten exposure.

This genetic susceptibility is important because it might mean that cereal and gluten consumption is an environmental factor in the development of Type I diabetes.

Testing for Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance doesn’t show up on blood tests. The best way to determine your sensitivity to gluten, says Randy Horowitz, director of the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine, is to use avoidance and provocative testing: the elimination diet and gluten challenge. You eliminate all gluten sources in your diet and then try adding it back to see if symptoms reoccur.

Food intolerances differ from full-blown food allergies so antibodies may not show up in blood tests. Some people swear by the pulse test, applied kinesiology or “live blood” analysis but Dr. Horowitz says that none of these have proved uniformly reliable and that some are “downright useless.”

He advises his patients to keep a log of all the food they eat and the symptoms they might experience for a few weeks. Then he helps them to identify possibly problematic foods which are then eliminated from the diet for four to six weeks. After that, the suspected food is eaten to see if symptoms re-develop. In some cases, people are able to gradually build up their tolerance to foods that previously bothered them.

Sources

National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases (2008)

Weston A. Price Foundation (2010)

Dr. Andrew Weil (2008)

Dr. Axe's Action Steps

Dr. Axe
  1. Read ingredient labels! I can’t stress this enough. Stay away from things like MSG or hydrolyzed plant or vegetable protein.
  2. Do a kitchen inventory. Toss out any white rice or enriched pastas. Replace grains with loads of raw vegetables and fruits, and some occasional wild rice or sprouted grain pasta.
  3. Even if you are not experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned above, it’s not a bad idea to try eliminating grains and other sources of gluten from your diet for a period.