What’s the Deal with Gluten?

by Cait Mizzi, CFNP

Technically speaking, gluten is a slurry of amino acids, primarily made up of two relevant proteins; gliadin and glutenin. These two proteins are very important players in the game of bread making. Gliadin gives dough the ability to rise, while glutenin provides dough’s unique elasticity.

Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and wheat varieties such as spelt, kamut, farro and durum. Not all grains contain the dreaded g-word; rice, millet, buckwheat, corn and oats are all, by definition, gluten-free. However, many grains co-mingle during processing, which means cross-contamination happens frequently.

It may be simple enough to differentiate between wheat and other gluten containing grains when in their whole or floured forms, but now, gluten is widely used in many packaged or pre-made foods that don’t resemble a loaf of bread. Most store-bought salad dressing, sauces, condiments, soups, sandwich meats, alcohol, chips, chocolate and candy contain isolated gluten protein or flours as thickening agents.

For those with celiac disease, exposure to gluten can be life threatening. Militant avoidance of all gluten containing foods and careful cleaning of shared food prep areas both at home and in restaurants is critical. When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, an immune response is triggered which damages the lining of the small intestine, inhibiting the absorption of important nutrients. If undiagnosed or left untreated, celiac disease can lead to severe nutrient deficiency, osteoporosis, other serious autoimmune conditions and failure to thrive.

In 2017, a third of the population was shown to be carrying the specific genes for celiac disease. Only about 5% of that population have or will go on to develop the condition. Unfortunately, that number seems to be growing. Currently, celiac disease affects at least 3 million Americans, and a very large portion of cases are going undiagnosed.

If you don’t have celiac disease, gluten shouldn’t be a problem then, right?
Sadly, there also seems to be a significant uptick in patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Ongoing research shows that exposure to gliadin (one of the proteins found in gluten) has a negative impact to the lining of the small intestine. This can lead to increased food sensitivities and intolerances, allergies, inflammation, increased risk of infection, nutritional deficiencies and reduced immune function.

For many decades, it was believed that you either have true gluten intolerance (celiac disease), or you don’t. Ongoing research, however, has indicated that symptoms of gluten intolerance occur on a spectrum. In other words, having a sensitivity to gluten is in fact possible, without having celiac disease.

Symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS):

  • Excessive bloating, abdominal pain and cramping
  • Significant “brain fog”, difficulty concentrating and trouble remembering information
  • ADD and ADHD
  • Frequent headaches
  • Low-energy or chronic fatigue
  • Muscle aches and joint pain
  • Numbness and tingling of the limbs
  • Eczema, psoriasis, rosacea and rashes
  • Nutrient deficiencies

To gluten, or not to gluten becomes the question of the day!

If you experience any of the symptoms above, it might be a good idea to remove all sources of gluten from your diet for a period of time. The temporary elimination might help you to understand whether you are suffering from NCGS, and enable you to adopt a new way of eating that is better suited to support a vibrant and healthy life.