Gluten is a protein, found in the seeds of the Triticum species. These include such grains as wheat, rye and barley. Oats do not contain gluten, but they are often grown or processed near gluten grains and are therefore contaminated with it. Uncontaminated oats are usually tolerated by people that have gluten intolerance. A lot of other foods contain gluten, where they might not be expected, for example some types of ketchup and ice cream.
Gluten consists of the proteins Gliadin and Glutenin. It is one of the factors that contribute to the elasticity of dough, because the molecules can crosslink to form a network. It may be that the structure of gluten evolved as both a storage form of protein for the developing plant, and as a chemical compound intended to discourage animals and insects from consuming the seed.
This protein, which is most highly concentrated in wheat, appears to be causing a host of health problems in a large part of the population. These problems are collectively categorized as Gluten sensitivity or Gluten intolerance, which causes a number of health issues, with Celiac disease being the most severe form. Many specialists suggest that gluten intolerance may be much more common than initially believed, possibly affecting a large part of the population.
With the most severe symptoms of gluten intolerance, the lining of the intestine has been degenerated by exposure to gluten proteins. This disease is called Celiac Disease and occurs in about 1 in 133 otherwise healthy people, and 1 in 56 people with related symptoms (1). Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder, with a genetic factor, and people that suffer from it are at a significantly increased chance of developing other autoimmune disorders such as type I diabetes.
The mechanism of gluten in the intestine is complex, but it involves the tight junctions, which are cellular boundaries intended to prevent substances from the digestive tract from entering the body without being metabolized first. What happens in celiac disease, is that these tight junctions become loose, allowing gluten proteins to enter the circulation. The immune system sees these proteins as foreign substances, and attacks them in an immune reaction. This causes inflammation and atrophy of the intestinal lining. The intestinal lining is the place in the digestive tract where most of the nutrient absorption takes place, so this is a very serious issue.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease include fatigue, diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, low micronutrient status, weight loss, failure to gain weight, mouth ulcers, dermatitis herpetiformis, osteopenia and osteoporosis. Some of those symptoms may often be confused with Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Celiac Disease increases chances of developing cancer in the intestine, and may exacerbate conditions such as Schizophrenia and Autism.
The only effective treatment for Celiac Disease is a life long gluten free diet, avoiding wheat, barley and rye and all foods that contain added gluten.
Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance are subtle and varied
Gluten intolerance is a term which includes all conditions in which people are adversely affected by gluten, and this includes celiac disease and gluten sensitive enteropathy. Wheat allergy may sometimes be classified as gluten sensitivity. People may be asymptomatic, or the symptoms may present themselves in a mysterious fashion, such as peripheral neuropathy or autoimmune disease.
A recent study suggested that gluten may stimulate the innate immune system in all people, not just those affected by celiac disease (2). Therefore people who have never been diagnosed with celiac disease may still have a sensitivity to gluten, it’s harmful effects are just not strong enough for the person to notice them. It is also possible that many people have gotten used to gluten’s harmful effects and won’t notice any difference until trying a gluten free diet and then reintroducing it and keeping track of symptoms.
Gluten intolerance and celiac disease can be diagnosed by antibody testing or an intestinal biopsy, but people may be sensitive to gluten even when those tests come back negative.
What to do about Gluten Intolerance
If you think you are intolerant to gluten, you should consider going gluten free. There is no need for a person to be consuming gluten grains in their diet, and people can actually live healthy without any grains at all. Grains in general are very low in nutrients compared to vegetables and animal food, and they do contain other anti-nutrients such as phytic acid and lectins, which are a subject for a later blog post. Grains were never a part of the human diet before the agricultural revolution.
I would recommend if you have any mysterious health issues, or that you have bad digestion or any of the symptoms of gluten intolerance, that you try to go gluten or grain free for a while to see if you feel any different. It is important to know that the symptoms caused by gluten intolerance may not be gastrointestinal symptoms but something entirely unrelated. It may be enough to just cut all wheat from your diet as wheat is the grain that contains the highest amount of gluten.
Grains that contain gluten: wheat, barley, rye, spelt, kamut and some others. Oats may often be contaminated with gluten unless specifically labeled gluten-free. Many other food products may contain added gluten.