Gluten is a word that is being thrown around more and more by today's society. But what is it? And, why is it affecting so many people?
When eating foods containing gluten, we get exposed to a class of proteins called Gliadins. These are responsible for making wheat rise in the baking process of breads, cakes etc. Whilst this is great for all the yummy, scrummy bakery's that provide us with delicious treats, it is not great for our health!
So that was the good: It's tasty! However, let's look at what gluten can do to our digestive systems and how this has a repercussion on our health.
Our digestive system is truly amazing; it forms the barrier between the outside world and us. Through a complicated set up, it makes sure we take in the good and eliminate the bad. The problem is, we are now exposed to hundreds of toxins on a daily basis and this unfortunately bombards our system. Within our intestines lives an intricate array of bacteria called the microbiome. Many of you will be familiar with them and know them as 'good bacteria' thanks to drinks such as yakult. Everyone’s microbiome is unique to them and this is a massive area of study. But why am I mentioning this?
Our microbiome represent our first line of defense against pathogens and toxins. They are in charge of looking after the cells of our intestines, making sure that they stay tightly packed to prevent unwanted materials from passing. They are also in charge of both creating and helping us absorb vitamins and minerals. Within our intestinal walls are immune cells, which will activate if toxins reach them (1). Therefore, the microbiome have a big roll in keeping our digestive tract in good order. They have what is known as a symbiotic relationship with us.
When we eat food containing gluten, we begin the digestive process by breaking down the carbohydrates and packaging them up into smaller constituents that theoretically should be easy to digest. The problem is within gluten, is the protein Gliadin, which can become quite destructive to us, as it causes another protein, called zonulin to be up regulated (2). This protein has a direct response on the integrity of our intestinal cell walls. I mentioned above that they should be tightly packed. Gluten has shown to affect these junctions, causing them to loosen allowing larger substances to travel through causing the immune cells present within the intestinal walls to mount an immune reaction. This is commonly seen in coeliac and IBD conditions. Why is this bad?
Once the cells of the intestine start to allow unwanted substance to pass through them, the immune system starts to go into over-drive, as it sees them as foreign materials. These substances will continue to travel into the blood stream activating even more immune cells and battles will begin (3). In the process of these battles, substances are released, which can cause more irritation and inflammation away from the digestive system, which is where gluten sensitivity has been linked to many autoimmune conditions including: IBD, diabetes, coeliac disease and neurodegenerative diseases (2).
So how does it become Ugly?
The process of the intestines becoming more leaky, places extra load on the liver, as all food passes from the bloodstream to the liver to be filtrated (3). The extra burden causes the liver to use more energy to help sort through an eliminate all the toxins, the problem is over time it can burn itself out and instead will package the toxins up, send them to our fat tissues so that it can deal with them later. The problem is, with this continual bombardment it never really gets around to sorting them out, so gradually the bodies toxicity can increase. This leads to continual inflammatory processes.
As mentioned earlier, gluten can have an affect on our microbiome. Imbalances can occur and we end up with something called ‘dysbiosis’ rather than ‘symbiosis’. This reduces our ability to be able to protect us from disease-causing microbes (3) and in turn can lead to leaky gut and systemic inflammation.
The ultimate gluten sensitivity is coeliac disease, which us a genetic autoimmune disease. This can remain undiagnosed for years. If it is not diagnosed early enough it can lead to many different health conditions, as disruptions to the digestive system also leads to malabsorption of vitamins and minerals. Alongside coeliac disease is gluten-sensitivity, meaning you still mount an immune response to gluten, however, it is not as severe as a coeliac.
Some symptoms associated with gluten sensitivities and coealic disease include:
- Abdominal Cramps
- Addison’s Disease
- Allergies/hay fever
- Vitamin deficiencies
What can you do to get some answers?
Functional Laboratory Testing: You can either ask your GP or Nutritional Therapist to run a test that looks for coeliac disease or food sensitivity tests that look at IgA and IgG antibodies.
You may also want to do a gluten elimination diet, whereby you eliminate gluten from your diet for 2-3 weeks, and then carefully add it back into your diet one source at a time to see whether any symptoms are triggered. You really need to read labels carefully so that you find hidden gluten sources in some of the food choices you usually make. If symptoms are not relieved during this period, you have to ask yourself two questions: 1 – am I sensitive to gluten or not, 2 - Is there something else alongside gluten that I may be intolerant to e.g. dairy, eggs, nightshade vegetables etc.
If you would like some more advice, or want to get down to the bottom of some symptoms you may be experiencing, please contact us by emailing: email@example.com.
1) Fasano A (2013) Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases. Ann NY Acas Sci, 1258: 25-33
2) Sanz Y (2015) Microbiome and Gluten. Ann Nutr Metab, 67: 28-41
3) Lipski E (2012) Digestive Wellness 4th edn, New York: Mc Graw Hill.
4) Hollon J et al., (2015) Effect of Gliadin on Permeability of Intestinal Biopsy Explants from Celiac Disease Patients and Patients with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. Nutrients, 7: 1565-1576