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Q. What’s so bad about gluten? Why would someone go ‘gluten-free’?
A. Gluten is the name of a group of proteins found in certain grains like wheat, barley, rye and others. It is the glue-like component that helps baked goods hold together and makes your pizza dough stretchy. Gluten proteins are very hard for many people to digest, and undigested gluten proteins can lead to abdominal discomfort as well as differentiating systemic symptoms. Approximately 3.2 million people in the U.S. suffer from gluten intolerance, meaning they cannot handle gluten whatsoever. Another 19.1 million do not have as severe a reaction to gluten, but are still sensitive to the protein, which means ingesting it can cause gastrointestinal (GI) distress, such as occasional bloating, stomach discomfort, and bowel troubles.
Gluten is not inherently bad—it is naturally occurring in these grains after all—but due to our current growing and processing methods of our grains, this protein has become problematic when ingested. It is hard to digest and causes damage to the intestinal lining when eaten. Gluten sensitivity occurs when gliadin (gluten protein) molecules are able to get into the blood stream through a damaged intestinal lining and provoke immune reactions throughout the body. This sensitivity is a common cause of autoimmune disease. In more serious cases such as in celiac disease, it can provoke immune reactions that cause severe intestinal damage and can lead to significantly compromised health.
This is a problem because if someone’s gut is already a bit damaged (say from processed foods, pesticides on foods, antibiotics, NSAIDs, artificial sugars, and/or stress) then some of the food they are eating will pass through these holes in their intestinal lining into the blood stream where it doesn’t belong. The immune system (which is sitting right outside the lining of the gut, watching and waiting) will identify these foods that passed through as intruders and mount an attack, chasing them through the blood stream, causing inflammatory responses wherever they end up. This inflammation could present in myriad ways: joint pain, headaches, skin rashes, or autoimmune diseases like colitis, alopecia areata, MS, etc.
“Stress, processed foods, bad fats, environmental toxins and pesticide-laden foods have all contributed to the alteration of the microbiome and the breakdown of digestion” says Dr. John Doulliard. It’s possible that current sensitivities to wheat are more likely connected to our modern environment—decades of processed foods, indigestible fats (that are cooked into modern breads, crackers, and baked goods), excess sugar, toxins in the environment that break down digestive enzymes, significantly overeating wheat, and sluggish digestive systems—than to due to the wheat itself.
If you are experiencing symptoms from consuming gluten, like bloating, sluggishness, digestive issues, or inflammatory processes in your body, taking gluten out of your diet for a while could be extremely helpful. Now that doesn’t mean you replace everything you were eating with the ‘gluten-free’ alternative because you will likely still be consuming processed grains and inflammatory oils baked into the products. It is best to switch to whole foods: real food you can recognize and less packaged, processed foods. This will give you a better chance at resetting your digestion and improving its function so you can later introduce real, ancient, or traditionally prepared grains back into your diet if you wish.