The Buzz on Gluten

Over the past few years, gluten-free items have shown increasing prominence in stores, and much discussion about this type of diet has appeared in popular magazines.  But what is the problem, really?  Why is gluten being made out to be such a bad guy?


This is a rather complex issue, but what we are finding is that many more people than previously thought do indeed have a sensitivity to or an inability to break down gluten.  Gluten is a protein molecule that is derived from several grains, but the most common of these is wheat.  And if you notice, wheat is present in many products, including breads, cookies, and crackers; it is also a common thickening agent in prepared foods.  In its most severe form, a sensitivity to gluten is called celiac disease, in which the body’s own immune system reacts strongly to the gluten molecule and in doing so, damages the small intestine.  This can lead to many problems, not the least of which is malabsorption.  It can also link with other autoimmune diseases.  More on this later.


A number of our patients have celiac disease.  More commonly, however, what we see is a situation in which an individual has become sensitive, or allergic, to gluten.  In these patients, the ingestion of it may cause headaches, joint pains, body rashes, and mood changes.


So why this recent increase in patients reacting to gluten?  The reasons for this are complex, and no one has a definitive answer, but there are several interesting and compelling bits of information that likely play some part in this.  For one thing, a large portion of the gluten, and especially the wheat, that we have now in the United States has been genetically modified.  It is not the same molecule that it was long ago, so many of us growing up ate gluten just fine, and it never became a problem until more recent years when the molecule changed.  There is also some evidence—and increasing numbers of studies are being done on this—that the widespread use of glyphosates (such as Roundup ®) in large crops affects how these molecules hit our digestive system, making them more inflammatory in general.


True celiac disease or gluten allergy can aggravate other autoimmune disorders, such as arthritis, thyroiditis (particularly Hashimoto’s thyroiditis), and polycystic ovarian syndrome.  Control of these conditions is frequently much better on a gluten-free diet.


So is a gluten-free diet right for you?  If you have any autoimmune disorder, persistent gastrointestinal symptoms, low iron levels, or allergies, it is certainly worth a try.  You may see a difference in how you feel and think!  Just be sure not to over-indulge in too many “gluten-free” treats and products as these are not necessarily healthy and may be high in sugar.


Some interesting further reading that you may want to look at is Grain Brain, by Dr. David Perlmutter—which discusses the effects of some of these glutinous grains on neuropsychological function—as well as Wheat Belly, another popular book written by Dr. William Davis about the effects of gluten, and specifically wheat, on digestive function and the lining of the GI tract.