I used to think that gluten-free diets should be reserved solely for those with Celiac Disease. I thought of “going gluten-free” as silly and unnecessary for the general population. I figured that gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, has been a staple in the human diet for centuries, so it couldn’t possibly be problematic! I mean, I ate white bread, pasta, and cereal as a kid, just like everyone else. It’s no big deal, right?
I wondered why everyone was suddenly making such a big deal about eating gluten. It wasn’t until I looked into the science and learned the reasons behind this gluten-free movement that I began to understand and appreciate its applications.
I came to realize that not only is it the gluten in wheat products that is (increasingly) problematic, but it is also the fact that one major thing about human health has changed, too! As a result of this, the way that our body reacts and responds to the gluten has exacerbated its negative effects on our health.
First, let’s talk about the potential “problems” with gluten:
It has been long established that gluten causes significant inflammation in those with Celiac Disease. However, surprising research shows that gluten is also capable of inducing an inflammatory response in “healthy” people who do not have Celiac Disease by increasing the production of inflammatory cytokines. Why does this happen? Please read on.
Research shows that gluten activates zonulin, which is a protein that regulates the permeability of the intestinal wall. Did you know that our intestinal wall is only one cell layer thick? Did you know that on the other side of that extremely thin layer lies 70% of our immune system?
That means an extremely thin layer separates our digestive system (basically a toxic waste dump) from our immune system. The release of zonulin directly affects the integrity of the gut wall by increasing the spaces between the “tight junctions” that hold that thin layer together. Increased space between these junctions allows unwanted particles through, such as gluten, which then leads to increased immune activation.
When discussing the effects of gluten, we must also consider the use of herbicides such as glyphosate (AKA “RoundUp”) on our modern wheat crops. Glyphosate is not only used as a weed killer on most wheat fields, but also as a desiccant to dry out the wheat in order to shorten the time to harvest.
Glyphosate leads to increased intestinal permeability, making wheat sprayed with glyphosate a “double-whammy” to our intestinal barrier function. According to the USDA, wheat is the 5th highest sprayed crop with glyphosate behind corn, soybeans, potatoes, and cotton.
Next, we have to discuss the major problem with our health that further exacerbates the negative effects of gluten:
Aside from gluten, there are additional factors, which are ubiquitous in our modern society, that contribute to increased risk of intestinal permeability. These include alcohol, high levels of stress, birth control, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, sugar, and processed foods, just to name a few.
Gluten becomes more problematic in the context of increased intestinal permeability, because gluten can only interact with the immune system if it is able to cross the intestinal barrier. This becomes much easier when the intestinal barrier is compromised, which is a likely scenario in many Americans.
Research is showing that this increased intestinal permeability may be a significant contributor to the onset of autoimmunity, and it is likely a major reason why so many people experience symptoms of gluten sensitivity despite not having Celiac Disease. This is known as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.”
The pervasiveness of gluten containing products in our grocery stores and homes also plays a role in the negative effects of gluten. According to the USDA, the average American consumed 131.9 pounds of wheat flour in 2019. While that may not have been problematic in an earlier generation when people were healthier, less stressed, less medicated, and had better gut barrier function, it seems that for many of us, our bodies cannot handle the effects of gluten as gracefully today.
When it comes down to it, gluten has been proven to increase inflammation and “leaky gut” on its own. The negative effects of gluten are further exacerbated when eaten in excess and in the context of increased intestinal permeability (“leaky gut”).
All in all, for healthy people, gluten is usually okay to consume in moderation (the less processed, the better). However, those with chronic diseases such as autoimmunity may want to consider trying a strictly gluten-free diet for 12-weeks to see how they feel.
Once any underlying imbalances are addressed and rebalanced, it may be possible to add gluten back into the diet with minimal consequences (provided you do not have Celiac Disease!).
Have you tried a gluten free diet? Did it help to improve your symptoms? If so, what improvements did you notice? For how long did you eliminate gluten? Would you consider going “gluten-free?”
Tags Healthy Aging