Gluten-free bread on a wooden table.

How gluten affects the body

Do you suffer bloating, brain fog or aching joints, or do you just not feel in good health? Maybe you want to lose weight but can’t give up the carbohydrates. The proteins in wheat, rye and barley, known as gluten, may be responsible for many of these symptoms (and possibly many more).

What is gluten?

Gluten is the name for a range of proteins called glutenins and gliadins. Gluten is found in grains, which were introduced into our diet about 10,000 years ago when we started to settle, cultivate land and farm. The grains available back then, however, have changed considerably, and the gluten content of wheat is now dramatically higher. Hybridisation over the last 50 years has caused the gluten content of wheat to increase by about 50-fold.

How gluten affects the body

Gluten proteins are difficult to digest. In the stomach we produce stomach acid and pepsin to start the process of breaking down the protein into smaller chains of amino acids, known as peptides. Our digestive enzymes act like scissors on these long chain structures. A protein is like a string of pearls that needs to be broken down into single pearls (or amino acids) in order for our body to absorb and make use of them.

We cannot do this with gluten because it has an unusual composition and the sequences of the amino acids are not recognised by the scissors that break these proteins down. For many people the consequence of this indigestibility may not pose a problem.

How gluten can be harmful

At least 50 peptides have been identified which can be toxic to the body depending on our genetic vulnerability. One such peptide resembles zonulin, a hormone found in the gut which is released when food has been digested. Zonulin tells the cells that line the gut that they need to create space between the cells to allow nutrients to pass through into the blood stream. Unfortunately this peptide does the same thing and the gap between the gut cells can widen and allow unwanted peptides into the bloodstream. This increased intestinal permeability has knock on consequences.

These “foreign invaders” are attacked by our immune system causing an inflammatory reaction. Our bodies make antibodies against these peptides. Some of these peptides act like opiates and bind to opiate receptors of the brain. This can cause brain fog or stimulate appetite in some people. These opiate-like peptides tend to stimulate our appetite for carbohydrates and so the vicious cycle continues.

Additionally, depending on our genetic make up, some of these antibodies created against the foreign peptides, can resemble the protein make-up of a particular cell, which causes the immune system to attack the body, leading to the development of autoimmune disease. It is well known that gluten can be implicated in hypothyroidism such as Hashimotos Disease.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the body attacks the gut lining preventing absorption of food which is a serious condition and affects one in a 100 people. People who have a particular genotype are more susceptible to celiac disease. Sometimes this can be unnoticed for years. But there are also many people with gluten sensitivity.

Will gluten free help with bloating?

A simple way to test yourself for gluten sensitivity is to remove gluten from the diet for at least 4 weeks. Wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut and oats contain gluten (oats can be contaminated with gluten but gluten free oats are fine). Gluten can be hidden in many processed foods. Even seafood sticks have added gluten.

After 4 weeks, introduce some gluten and see how you feel. If you feel worse, then gluten may be best avoided long term. Alternatively there are tests that can show both celiac or gluten sensitivity and whether there are antibodies of a significant level against different cells of the body (Cyrex Laboratories).

Although we cannot blame everything on gluten, there is plenty of research available to suggest that cutting gluten from your diet might be worth considering if you want to improve your feelings of health and wellness.

What grains can I eat?

Ideally, if gluten is causing a problem, it is sensible to avoid other grains at least until the gut is healed and the inflammation has been reduced. The reason for this is that peptides from other grains can get into the blood stream and also cause an immune response. Often people will avoid grains such as wheat, rye and barley, but will resort to quinoa, amaranth and commercially blended gluten-free products. If these grains have not been part of our diet previously, these proteins can initiate an antibody response, particularly while the gut is inflamed. I have found that rice can be a problem for some clients, and this is a key ingredient in most commercial gluten-free flours and products.

What's cross reactivity?

Proteins from other foods, principally milk, eggs and soya can similarly create an immune response. This will not happen to everyone and one can do a food sensitivity test to check (i.e. York test laboratories). Alternatively, one can make a food diary and eliminate all suspect foods for three to four weeks and then introduce one food at a time, identifying any reactions such as headaches, bloating, skin rash, IBS symptoms, constipation, aches and pains. As a kinesiologist I am able to ascertain food intolerances by muscle testing.

Alternative foods

Thankfully there are many gluten-free recipes available on the internet, and health food shops stock a wide range of alternative foods. For a quick snack try corn cakes or gluten-free oat cakes. There are a wide range of gluten-free flours to try too, such as coconut, buckwheat, corn, millet, potato and gram flours. Ground almonds also act as a good substitute.

By Anne White
T. 07984 512 229