Understanding gluten sensitivity

Eating gluten-free is all the rage. Have you jumped on the bandwagon, or are you a skeptic? In this article I will explain why gluten sensitivity is becoming a bigger and bigger issue for many people, and why to consider avoiding it.

What is gluten?

First, let’s define what gluten is. Gluten is found in wheat (including spelt and kamut, more ancient forms of wheat), rye, barley, and oats. Gluten is made up of two proteins, gliadin and glutinen, both which cause adverse reactions in many people. Gluten is what makes dough doughy. Imagine smooth and pliable pizza dough being tossed in the air. This wouldn’t be possible without gluten.

Why is gluten suddenly a big problem?

Bread has been eaten for thousands of years, so why has it emerged of late as a problem for some? The wheat that was consumed 12,000 years ago is known as einkorn . It is still available and is the only non-hybridized wheat on the market. Einkorn contains much less gluten than modern-day wheat.

Over the centuries wheat has been hybridized to increase the gluten content to improve the texture of baked goods. In the past 50 years alone, the gluten in wheat has quadrupled. Furthermore, einkorn only has 14 chromosomes, compared to the 42 chromosomes that modern wheat has. The added chromosomes are genetically coded for a type of gluten that is actually more irritating to our bodies. As you can see, we are getting a much larger dose of gluten than we used to, and it has different and more irritating qualities. 

Celiac disease vs. gluten intolerance

Celiac disease is a gluten allergy. Gluten causes an immune reaction in the body of those with celiac disease that causes the villi (finger-like projections that increase nutrient absorption) lining the intestinal walls to be flattened and damaged over time. People with gluten intolerance may have similar symptoms as people with celiac disease but they don’t end up with damage to the villi. Celiac disease is no longer a rare condition, but it is certainly less prevalent than gluten intolerance, which is becoming quite common.

The genes for both celiac disease and gluten intolerance have been identified. It is estimated that 81 percent of the population has some of these genes. The genes may not be turned on in each individual, but it is an indication of why gluten issues are prevalent. A study comparing blood samples from over 9,000 Air Force recruits from the early 1950s to a similar sample of people today showed a four-fold increase in prevalence of celiac disease. 

Gluten reactions cause a wide variety of symptoms. The symptoms don’t always appear immediately following the consumption of gluten. Over prolonged and repeated exposure to gluten, people may suffer from digestive upset, neurological problems, mental/emotional symptoms, and autoimmune issues. 

Gluten proteins can leak through damaged intestinal walls and cause an inflammatory response in any susceptible tissue. This inflammation can play a role in conditions ranging from arthritis and allergies to insulin resistance and obesity. 

Anyone experiencing chronic joint pain, allergies, skin problems, irritable bowel syndrome, acid reflux, inflammatory bowel disease, multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s disease, ADD/ADHD, depression, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthritis and many more inflammatory conditions should consider leaving gluten behind.

Testing for gluten intolerance

There is much confusion regarding appropriate testing for both celiac disease and gluten intolerance. The blood tests that doctors often perform for gluten intolerance have a high false negative rate. If there is no damage to the intestinal villi, the test will come back negative. 

This could be problematic for two reasons. It is only diagnosing celiac disease once the damage has been done to the body. If there is no damage, it doesn’t mean that there isn’t a gluten sensitivity. Similarly, the standard biopsy test for celiac disease waits until there is evident damage to the villi, which doesn’t help celiacs prevent this damage before it occurs.

Currently, the only accurate test is a stool sample that tests for immune antibodies. The company EnteroLab offers tests to the general public looking for food intolerance screening. According to EnteroLab, at least 50 percent of the population tests positive to gluten sensitivity, and half of those who are sensitive are symptomatic. 

Another, less expensive, method of testing is to eliminate gluten from your diet for four to six weeks, then add it back and see what happens. This is less scientific, but highly experiential. When people experience how differently they can feel without gluten, they are more motivated to avoid it.

What to eat?

Eating gluten-free can be challenging, but with a little education and effort, it is very doable. The first place to start is to avoid processed foods or select them very carefully. Gluten is often hidden in these packaged foods, and not obvious in the list of ingredients. This article contains a good list of pointers of what to look for on a food label. 

There are also many gluten-free products on the market that can make eating easier. One thing to keep in mind is that grains in general can be difficult to digest in large quantities, and just because they’re gluten-free doesn’t mean you should consume them with reckless abandon. 

If you have a hankering for a sandwich and you haven’t had one in weeks, gluten-free bread to the rescue! The gluten-free grains are rice, quinoa, millet, buckwheat and amaranth. Corn is also gluten-free, but be careful, because too much corn can cause an inflammatory response.

Focus on healthy fish, meats, fruits, and vegetables. Dairy and eggs are also gluten-free. Avoid, bread, pasta (unless rice- or corn-based) and other traditional baked goods. If you have a craving for a sweet treat, I have included a couple of recipes below. Don’t forget about dark chocolate–it is a great low-sugar/gluten-free option!

Many restaurants now have gluten-free menus and a more educated staff, making dining out a lot less scary for those who are gluten intolerant or have celiac disease.

After the initial grieving period, going gluten-free, or mostly gluten-free, can be a rewarding, health-promoting experience. It’s not a bad idea for everyone to moderate their gluten consumption, and avoiding gluten is one more piece to the puzzle of multiple health challenges. Imagine a life with less inflammation and pain, better moods, more energy, clearer thinking, and easy digestion.

Treating yourself gluten-free

Sweet Potato Pecan Muffins

  • 1 15 oz. can pureed sweet potato
  • 1 cup almond butter, roasted, no salt
  • 1 egg
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ginger
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 36 pecan halves, for decoration

Place paper liners in a standard muffin tin to ensure easy removal. Preheat oven to 350° F. Whisk all ingredients together. Spoon or pour batter into muffin tin. Decorate top with 3 pecan halves. Bake 20-25 minutes, or until lightly browned, and a toothpick comes out clean. Store in an airtight plastic bag or container in the refrigerator. Makes 12 standard muffins.

Note: I prefer the natural sweetness of the sweet potato. However, if you prefer a sweeter muffin, you can add 1 or 2 tablespoons of pure maple syrup or a packet or two of stevia powder.

Chocolate Coconut Macaroons

  • 1 cup (heaping) unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1/4 cup virgin coconut oil
  • 5 tbsp cocoa powder
  • 2 tbsp pure maple syrup
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 pkt. stevia powder (optional)

Pulse the coconut in a food processor several times to break into even smaller pieces. Add the remaining ingredients and run until completely mixed, scraping down the sides if necessary. Scoop the mixture with a small cookie scoop or use a teaspoon to scoop small portions and roll into little balls.  Work quickly, as the mixture melts with the warmth of your hands. Refrigerate until set, and the store in a covered container in the refrigerator