What is Gluten?
Decades ago, gluten was regarded as a ‘wonder food’ due to its role as a cheap protein additive. However, today we have much more knowledge about gluten and its effects on peoples’ health, and now there is a substantial movement away from gluten, due to the adverse reactions it has on some people.
Put simply, gluten is a protein found in wheat kernels, which helps nourish the infant plant while it first establishes itself in the ground. It has many uses; amongst other things, it gives bread the fluffy and chewy texture we enjoy so much – it’s the ‘glue’ which holds our bread together (the word ‘gluten’ is actually Latin for ‘glue’). It’s also the reason baked foods rise so well and some processed foods are so tempting.
In addition, gluten is not only used in food, it’s also an ingredient in cosmetics, hair products and other skin products.
It may seem that ‘gluten intolerance’ has only become a big issue in recent decades, which to some extent is correct. In the late 1950s, scientists worked to boost world food production via the ‘Green Revolution’. Using genetics and cross-breeding various wheat strains, these scientists worked to create stronger, faster-growing, more productive grain-producing plants, which were sown around the world.
However their success may have increased or even changed the nature of the gluten found in these crops. Many researchers think that it is the gluten from this ‘modern’ wheat which may have caused much of today’s gluten health problems.
Alongside these scientists, wheat farmers found that if they harvested their crop before it was fully mature, this boosted the gluten content of their produce, leading to impressive advances in the texture and elasticity of foods. As a result, gluten usage became ever-more popular in the food industry.
Today, gluten is found in many different food products, including tea, condiments, standard breads, many alcoholic beverages (including beer), soups, and soy sauce. My ‘golden rule for gluten’ is anything that contains traces of wheat, wheat by-products, or other cereal grains such as rye or barley will contain gluten to some degree.
If you’re affected by gluten, it’s always best to read labels before buying the product.
Why does gluten affect me?
The brief answer to this is – we just don’t know.
Of course, there is a reason why gluten intolerance (also known as ‘gluten allergy’) affects some people and why it doesn’t affect others. Teams of scientists and researchers around the world are chasing the answer, but they are still some way off. Right now, the only answer for people who are sensitive to gluten is to cut it out of their diet completely.
Gluten intolerance affects some people very badly and can trigger an abnormal immune response in your body. This can lead to:
- serious damage to your intestines
- abdominal pain
- skin rashes
- joint pain
Gluten intolerance can also prevent you from absorbing important vitamins, minerals and nutrients from the food you eat. Nutrient deficiency can lead to a range of other health problems like autoimmune disorders and a reduced quality of life.
If you suspect that you may suffer from gluten intolerance, you can be tested, or simply cut out all foods that contain gluten in them for a period of 30 days and see how your body reacts. If you react badly to gluten in any way, your symptoms will gradually start to disappear and you’ll begin to feel better. Depending on your level of gluten intolerance, it can take from a few weeks to a few months to recover from the symptoms of a gluten allergy.
If you think you’re at risk, speak to your doctor.
Types and symptoms of gluten intolerance
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder of your small intestine, triggered by the presence of gluten in your system.
If unrecognized, it can cause serious damage to your internal organs and the inner lining of your intestines. As mentioned earlier, it can result in harmful substances leaking into your blood stream from your intestines and hinder the absorption of important nutrients and minerals.
According to the National Institutes of Health, celiac disease is the most commonly reported and fastest-growing form of gluten intolerance. National figures show that it affects between 1 in 133 and 1 in 141 people in the United States. Globally, it affects between 1 in 100 to 1 in 170 people.
But if you think that’s scary, consider this; according to the United States Department of Agriculture, 83% of cases of celiac disease are never diagnosed, and approximately 22% of people with celiac disease also have a family member with the disorder.
Modern medicine has looked closely at celiac disease and today doctors have a number of options available. These range from genetics testing to intestinal biopsies that can positively identify the antibodies responsible for the inflammation related to gluten.
Despite these advances, the best way to find out whether you suffer from celiac disease (especially if you have the symptoms yet record negative test results) is to cut out all foods containing gluten for 30 days. Gradually reintroduce some of these foods and see how your body reacts. If you feel bloated, gassy, tired or suffer from ‘brain fog’, then get another opinion – celiac disease is nothing to mess around with.
People with gluten sensitivity may suffer from symptoms which are very similar to those of celiac disease but which do not damage the intestinal lining.
Gluten sensitivity is also known as ‘Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity’ (or NCGS). Medical options to diagnose gluten sensitivity are not as conclusive as those for celiac disease. Once again, keeping it simple can be best – removing gluten from your diet for 30 days can be one of the more accurate methods.
Some researchers suspect that proteins other than gluten, such as FODMAPs (Fermentable, Oligo-, Di-, Monosaccharides And Polyols) which are present in wheat grains, may be responsible for gluten sensitivity. However, to date there are no conclusive studies that prove this one way or the other.
Gluten Allergy symptoms
Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity share some overlapping symptoms. These are the most commonly observed general symptoms of gluten allergy, but this list is by no mean exhaustive.
- Skin rashes
- Headaches or migraine
- Heart burn
- Brain fog
- Abdominal pain
- Joint pain
If you suffer extensively or for a prolonged period from one or more of these symptoms, get yourself to your doctor for a check-up.
Health risks from gluten intolerance
Most people don’t take gluten allergies as seriously as they should, perhaps because they seem so common. The health risks and consequences of gluten intolerance are potentially serious and can lead to many other health problems if left untreated or ignored.
If you find that you’re affected by gluten, you should work on reducing or eliminating it from your diet straight away.
- Gastrointestinal problems such as acid reflux, irritable bowel syndrome and bloating are all evidence of gluten inflammation and the complications which they can result from.
- Malnutrition can result from a malfunctioning digestion system. This means that even if you are eating a balanced diet, you’ll lack the critical nutrients and minerals necessary for optimum health because you will not be able to absorb them. In children this can lead to delayed development and stunted growth, while adults can experience dizziness, fatigue or become underweight, reducing your body’s ability to heal from wounds or infections.
- Cancers such as lymphoma and bowel cancer have both been linked to complications resulting from gluten intolerance. These diseases can occur due to your autoimmune system being compromised, which can encourage the growth of cancerous cells.
- Lactose intolerance (intolerance for dairy products such as milk and cheese), can result from a gluten allergy, because your body will lack the enzymes to digest the sugar found in dairy products (this is discussed in depth later on.
- Osteoporosis is a disorder in which bone tissue deteriorates and causes your bones to become brittle and porous. This disorder affects women more than men and could be a major complication of an intolerance to gluten if it reduces your body’s ability to absorb calcium, magnesium, and vitamin D for an extended period.
- Neurological complications like depression, anxiety, seizures, and migraines have all been linked to gluten allergies, and can be caused by the nutrient deficiencies and hormonal imbalances which occur if your gluten intolerance is ignored or misdiagnosed.
- Fertility problems: Women with celiac disease are also often prone to fertility problems, attributed to unexplainable factors and problematic hormones. This can be a result of nutritional deficiencies which are common for people newly-diagnosed with celiac disease. If left untreated, chronic infertility and hormonal problems can be linked to complications of gluten intolerance.
- Anemia: Around 40% of women diagnosed with gluten allergies have also reported symptoms of anemia (a decrease of red blood cells in the blood). Pregnant women can face additional problems during the course of their pregnancy if they experience uncontrolled gluten allergies, due to associated nutritional deficiencies. These can potentially include placental abruption, neural tube defects, miscarriages, threatened miscarriages and gestational hypertension (high blood pressure).
- Menstrual problems: Women can experience irregular or absent periods as a result of the hormonal problems and nutritional deficiencies resulting from untreated gluten intolerance.
- Thyroid problems can be caused by celiac disease, leading to a wide range of serious problems such as Graves Disease (this can cause increased heartbeat, muscle weakness, disturbed sleep, and issues with your circulation and eyes).
Is there a cure for gluten intolerance?
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for gluten intolerance. While a few experimental vaccines have been produced and are in human trials, these are years off from being released for sale, even if they pass stringent tests. Many people may not even know they have a form of gluten intolerance if they suffer from less-severe symptoms which gradually increase as they age.
While there may be no cure, you can still control and even eliminate your gluten allergy symptoms – by completely cutting gluten from your diet. This method, recommended by doctors and health professionals around the world, means cutting out all wheat and cereal grains and other food types that contain even the slightest amount of gluten.
Once you remove gluten from your diet, you’ll find your gluten allergy symptoms will gradually recede and you’ll start to feel much better. Your recovery time will depend on how severely gluten affects you and how much you eat in your daily diet.