If there is one thing you could do to improve your health today – just one thing – I would say to give up gluten. Plenty of people understand that sugar is unhealthy – and I know several parents who will go on about how they’re keeping their kids from eating sugar, but then they’ll happily feed them crackers, pieces of bread or pasta – all of which are FAR WORSE for them, on every level, than sugar is. Firstly, those foods basically ARE sugar, according to our bodies, and secondly they contain many, far more harmful, compounds – the main one of these being gluten.
If you suffer from any kind of auto-immune condition (Ulcerative Colitis, Crohns, IBS, Hashimotos Hypothyroidism, Celiac Disease, Psoriasis, etc) it is absolutely imperative that you avoid gluten 100%, no ifs or buts – 100%. But I would go so far as to strongly advise pretty much everyone to cut it out. The health issues associated with it are far too numerous to ever make it worth it in the long term. Even those who “feel just fine” eating it are slowly causing damage to their digestive systems, and ultimately, their entire bodies, whether they like it or not. It is really just not worth it. To understand why, read on…
You may be thinking “but human beings have been eating gluten for 10,000 years!”, although this is technically true, we have NOT been eating anything close to the gluten levels present in modern wheat. Modern wheat has been so completely genetically modified that it is an entirely different grain to what it was just half a century ago. Also, traditional societies used to prepare grains in a painstaking process of soaking, sprouting and fermenting them to mitigate some of the harmful properties. This is no longer the way grains are prepared and is one of the reasons that gluten allergies and intolerances are dramatically increasing throughout the world.
So what is gluten?
Gluten (from Latin word for “glue”) is a protein composite found in foods processed from wheat and related grain species, including barley and rye. Gluten is the composite of gliadin and glutenin, which is conjoined with starch in the endosperm of various grass-related grains. The prolamin and glutelin from wheat (gliadin and glutenin) constitute about 80% of the protein contained in wheat fruit.
The fruit of most flowering plants have endosperms with stored protein to nourish embryonic plants during germination. True gluten, with gliadin and glutenin, is limited to certain members of the grass family (the stored proteins of maize and rice are sometimes called glutens, but their proteins differ from true gluten).
These proteins are essential to the existence of these grains but, as we’ll explore further, these are also the same characteristics that make them so harmful to our bodies.
Here’s why I would encourage everyone to stop eating it. Now.
Plants, like animals, are concerned about their own survival. And since, unlike animals, grains are unable to get up and run away from danger, they have inbuilt weapons in place to protect themselves – especially when it comes to the potential destruction of their seeds. Virtually all cereal grains contain toxins that are supposed to deter living beings from eating them. These toxic prolamines (part of the gluten structure) are impossible for the human gut to break down or from which to absorb nutrients. This is how the plant ensures that they remain intact.
The prolamine found in wheat (gliadin) is the most harmful of these and has the most toxic effects on the intestinal gut lining (even in healthy people). These damaging effects are worse for those suffering from Celiac Disease, but will affect everyone – whether or not you experience symptoms.
So how does the damage occur?
Since these gliadin particles are impossible to breakdown, they trigger the release of IL-8, which triggers the initial stages of gut inflammation.
These then activate the Th1 part of the immune system (the body’s first line of defense against foreign particles).
This is just the start.
The gut is designed to keep certain particles (bad guys) out of the body, and to allow nutrients (good guys) IN. Imagine the intestine walls as a mesh with special “doors” to allow certain substances through. These are called “tight junctions” and are controlled by signals designed to keep the protective balance of the gut intact and the large undigested proteins out. One of these signals is triggered by a protein called zonulin (not any relation to these guys), and this is largely responsible for either opening or closing these tight junctions.
The gut lining should work to keep indigestible particles out and allow nutrients from digested foods into the body, like this:
Image Source: Surprises from Celiac Disease
The problem is, that gliadin happens to have a sneaky way to get passed these tight junctions by interacting with zonulin, causing the junctions to open up, thus loosening the protective barrier of the gut wall. Think of zonulin like the club bouncer, and gliadin showing him a fake ID to sneak right in.
So instead of a nice intact barrier, large fragments of undigested gluten particles begin to pass through like this:
Image Source: Surprises from Celiac Disease
So, not only has gliadin triggered inflammation in the gut, but it is now able to infiltrate the body. This causes the enterocytes to release IL-15, triggering worse inflammation inside the gut wall itself. The inflammation eventually leads to severe damage of the gut wall, leading to a condition known as “leaky gut” in which foreign particles, like gliadin, can pass right through as they please.
This is what eventually leads to auto-immune conditions. The body produces anti-bodies to fight off these foreign particles. These are trained to recognize and remember specific pathogens and mount stronger attacks each time they appear, but sometimes these sniper cells (gliadin/tTG) mistakenly attack the enterocyte cells instead. It would be like a super intense ground battle where artillery is fired in all directions and over time the attacks get bad enough that surrounding buildings (microvilli of the intestinal lining) are also destroyed. The body essentially begins to destroy itself.
This is a slightly simpler summary:
Image Source: SCD Lifestyle
So what health issues are associated with gluten?
The diagram above refers specifically to Celiac Disease, but a person does not have to have been diagnosed with this condition to have gluten trigger other auto-immune conditions. As I said earlier, gluten is damaging even to those with a seemingly healthy gut.
Most people assume gluten intolerance always causes digestive distress, but actually almost 50% of those with a gluten-intolerance do not experience gastrointestinal symptoms. In fact, the majority of celiac cases are silent forms which go undiagnosed.
Gluten intolerance can affect nearly every tissue in the body, from the brain, skin, stomach, liver, endocrine system, blood vessels, muscles etc.
Here are just a few of the diseases that are associated with gluten intolerance:
Hashimoto’s hypothyroidism, psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, osteoporosis, schizophrenia, epilepsy, autism, dermatitis, peripheral neuropathy.
Not to mention the fact that gliadin is also an opiate (so is heroin) – it binds to opiate receptors in the brain and stimulates appetite, leading to addiction. I know for myself, I used to eat mountains of pasta and NEVER be fully satisfied:
Yes, that was me a few years ago. Happily gorging myself on delicious pasta.
Anyway, I now often see kids eat crackers or cheerios and then shriek as they DESPERATELY demand more and more, with seemingly no off-switch. Their poor little bodies get flooded with these compounds – triggering a cascade of addictive responses that lead to completely irrational behavior that they are powerless to control. Wheat is addictive. Ask most people if they’d give it up and you’ll trigger a whole host of disproportionately vehement responses – trust me, I’ve heard my share!
Because the tests for gluten intolerance are so inconclusive, often it is not even picked up by doctors. The only way to really understand how your body reacts to gluten is to cut it out 100% for at least 30 days. But up to 30% of people still continue to show symptoms, so you would need to also cut out other cross-reactive proteins that have similar effects on the body – ie. all inflammatory foods, which means all grains, dairy and legumes.
Personally, my advice would be to cut it out completely, regardless.
In my mind, playing around with gluten is like smoking. It may not kill you immediately (or even seem to cause a problem), but it is slowly damaging your body, whether you like it or not.
I don’t know about you, but I would really like to be healthy well into my old age. Which, incidentally does not have to involve achy joints, arthritis, dementia, a bloated abdomen or hypertension!