Awareness of the negative health effects of gluten has increased in the past few years.One 2013 survey shows that a third of Americans are actively trying to eliminate gluten from their diets.But gluten-free is more than just the latest fad… there are multiple studies showing that gluten can cause harmful effects.
Here are some reasons to avoid gluten.
What is Gluten?
Before we continue, let me briefly explain what gluten is.Gluten is a family of proteins, found in cereal grains like wheat, spelt, rye and barley. Of the gluten-containing grains, wheat is the most commonly consumed, by far.The two main proteins in gluten are gliadin and glutenin, of which gliadin appears to be the biggest offender.When flour is mixed with water, the gluten proteins cross-link to form a sticky network that is glue-like in consistency.If you’ve ever held wet dough in your hands, then you’ll know what I’m talking about.The name glu-ten is actually derived from these glue-like properties.Gluten makes the dough elastic, and gives bread the ability to rise when heated by trapping gas molecules inside. It also provides a satisfying, chewy texture.
1. Celiac Disease is on The Rise and Most People Remain Undiagnosed
Gluten is a protein composite found in several types of grains, including wheat, spelt, rye and barley.Gluten consists of two proteins… gliadin and glutenin. It is the gliadin part that people react negatively to.When flour is mixed with water, gluten forms a sticky cross-linked network of proteins, giving elastic properties to dough and allowing bread to rise when baked.Actually, the name gluten is derived from these glue-like properties.When gluten reaches the digestive tract and is exposed to the cells of the immune system, they mistakenly believe that it is coming from some sort of foreign invader, like a bacteria.In certain people who are sensitive to gluten, this causes the immune system to mount an attack against it.In celiac disease (the most severe form of gluten sensitivity), the immune system attacks the gluten proteins, but it also attacks an enzyme in the cells of the digestive tract called tissue transglutaminase.
Therefore, gluten exposure in celiacs causes the immune system to attack both the gluten as well as the intestinal wall itself. For this reason, celiac disease is classified as an autoimmune disease.The immune reaction can cause degeneration of the intestinal wall, which leads to nutrient deficiencies, various digestive issues, anemia, fatigue, failure to thrive as well as an increased risk of many serious diseases.Celiac disease is believed to afflict about 1% of people, but it may be more common (over 2%) in the elderly. There are also studies showing that the rate of celiac disease is increasing rapidly in the population.Keep in mind that a large percentage of celiacs don’t even have abdominal symptoms, making diagnosis on clinical grounds very difficult.The symptoms might manifest themselves in different ways, like fatigue, anemia… or something much worse, like a doubled risk of death in several studies.According to one study, over 80% of people with celiac disease don’t even know that they have it.
2. Gluten Sensitivity is Much More Common and Can Also Have Serious Consequences
You don’t need to have full-blown celiac disease to have adverse reactions to gluten.There is another disorder called gluten sensitivity (or gluten intolerance), which is much more common.Although there is no clear definition of gluten sensitivity, it basically means having some sort of adverse reaction to gluten and an improvement in symptoms on a gluten-free diet.If you have adverse reactions to gluten, but celiac disease is ruled out, then it is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity.In non-celiac gluten sensitivity, there is no attack on the body’s own tissues. However, many of the symptoms are similar to those in celiac disease, including bloating, stomach pain, fatigue, diarrhea, as well as pain in the bones and joints.
Unfortunately… because there is no clear way of diagnosing gluten sensitivity, reliable numbers on how common it is are impossible to find.There are two sources showing that up to 6-8% people may have gluten sensitivity, based on anti-gliadin antibodies found in the blood.However, one gastroenterologist found that 11% of people had antibodies against gluten in their blood and 29% of people had antibodies against it in stool samples.About 40% of people carry the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes, which make people susceptible to gluten sensitivity.Given that there is no clear definition of gluten sensitivity, or a good way to diagnose it, the only true way of knowing is by eliminating gluten temporarily from your diet, then reintroducing it to see if you have symptoms.
3. Gluten May Cause Adverse Effects, Even in People Who Don’t Have Gluten Sensitivity
In one of these studies, 34 individuals with irritable bowel syndrome were randomized to either a gluten-containing or a gluten-free diet.The group on the gluten-containing diet had more pain, bloating, stool inconsistency and fatigue compared to the other group .There are also studies showing that gluten can cause inflammation in the intestine and a degenerated intestinal lining.Gluten may also have negative effects on the barrier function of the intestine, allowing unwanted substances to “leak” through into the bloodstream.However, according to one study, this “leakiness” of the gut only happens in celiac patients.Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) involves various digestive issues with an unknown cause, afflicting about 14% of people in the U.S. According to the studies above, some cases of IBS may be either caused or exacerbated by gluten.Although this needs to be studied a lot more, it seems very clear that many more people than just celiac patients react negatively to gluten.
4. Many Brain Disorders Are Associated With Gluten and Patients See Dramatic Improvements on a Gluten-Free Diet
Even though gluten primarily works its “magic” in the gut, it can also have severe effects on the brain.Many cases of neurological illness may be caused and/or exacerbated by gluten consumption. This is called gluten-sensitive idiopathic neuropathy.In a study of patients with neurological illness of an unknown cause, 30 of 53 patients (57%) had antibodies against gluten in the blood.The main neurological disorder believed to be at least partly caused by gluten is cerebellar ataxia, a serious disease of the brain that involves an inability to coordinate balance, movements, problems talking, etc.
It is now known that many cases of ataxia are directly linked to gluten consumption. This is called gluten ataxia and involves irreversible damage to the cerebellum, a part of the brain that is important in motor control.Many studies show strong statistical associations between gluten consumption, gluten sensitivity and cerebellar ataxia. There is also a controlled trial showing that ataxia patients improve significantly on a gluten-free diet.There are several other brain disorders that respond well to a gluten-free diet:
- Schizophrenia: A subset of schizophrenia patients sees massive improvements by removing gluten.
- Autism: Several studies suggest that people with autism see improvements in symptoms on a gluten-free diet.
- Epilepsy: There are several reports of patients with epilepsy improving significantly when removing gluten.