Gluten: in the natural health community, it’s become a dirty word, because more and more people are realizing that they are either sensitive to or have an allergy to gluten.
What is gluten? Why are so many people finding out that they have a gluten allergy or sensitivity? Here’s a closer look at gluten and the symptoms of gluten allergy.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a protein that comes from grains. Although gluten is most often associated with wheat, other grains also contain gluten, including barley and rye.
“Gluten” itself is a Latin word that means “glue”, and that is an apt description of gluten. A gluey substance that is insoluble in water, gluten is used in most processed breads. When bread dough made of wheat flour is kneaded, the gluten forms and makes the dough thicker. It is when gluten works in combination with yeast, in fact, that actually causes the bread dough to rise. As the yeast ferments, it releases carbon dioxide bubbles. Instead of escaping the mixture, the bubbles are trapped by the gluey gluten, and the dough expands.
Elastic and sticky, the more gluten in a bread product, the chewier it becomes. Pizza dough, bagels, and most standard breads all tend to contain a good amount of gluten, whereas cakes and other pastries contain less.
The Good and the Bad of Gluten
As previously mentioned, gluten is a protein, and it’s a protein that accounts for a large share of the world’s protein intake. Gluten is usually the basis of imitation meats, such as the popular faux meat brand, Tofurky. Textured vegetable protein, or TVP, a common protein source for vegetarians, also contains some gluten. Even pet foods contain gluten as a way to increase their protein source.
Because modern food manufacturing uses wheat and wheat products in many different foods, you’ll also find gluten in unusual places, such as ice cream and ketchup. In fact, because the FDA classifies gluten as “GRAS”, or “generally recognized as safe”, gluten is sometimes used as an additive but not even mentioned in the label. Products labeled “gluten free” may still have trace amounts of gluten in it, because it is very difficult to remove all of the gluten from a product containing wheat.
Although gluten is a good source of protein, it’s also difficult to digest. Remember, the word “gluten” means glue. When you eat products with a high gluten content, you’ll get protein, but your body will also have a hard time breaking it down.
Celiac disease, also spelled coeliac outside of North America, is a genetic disease of the small intestine that leads to chronic diarrhea, fatigue, and in children celiac disease is associated with developmental delays – for example, many children with autism also have celiac disease.
Celiac disease in essence is an adverse reaction to gliadin, a protein in gluten. The immune system reacts to the protein and inflames the small intestine. The effects of the inflamed small intestine then ripple outward, adversely affecting the rest of the body. Because the disease affects the small intestine, people with celiac disease often have trouble absorbing iron, vitamin B12, folic acid, calcium, and vitamins A, D, E, and K. As a result, people with celiac disease often suffer from anemia, hyperparathyroidism, and osteopenia/osteoporosis. It can start in infancy, or it can set in later in life. Approximately 1% of the population has celiac disease, but the disease is often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), chronic fatigue syndrome, anemia, or a similar problem.
Gluten Allergy Symptoms
Although everyone with celiac disease is allergic to gluten, not everyone with a gluten allergy also has celiac disease.
The allergy is actually rather common. About 1 in 167 children have a gluten allergy, and 1 in 111 adults also have a gluten allergy. Gluten allergies are even more common in people who have frequent complaints about gastrointestinal problems. In these people, about 1 in 40 children and 1 in 30 adults are eventually diagnosed with a gluten allergy. Symptoms of a gluten allergy include the following:
- The same symptoms of celiac disease mentioned above, such as fatigue, anemia, osteoporosis, and diarrhea
- Frequent upper respiratory infections
- Mouth sores or ulcers
- Attention deficit disorder
- Skin conditions, such as keratosis pilaris and eczema
Even if you do not have all the symptoms listed above, if you have several of these symptoms, you may have a gluten allergy, or at least a gluten sensitivity, also known as gluten intolerance.
Is Gluten Intolerance on the Rise?
You may have noticed that more and more items in your grocery store or health food store are appearing with the “gluten free” label. Is gluten intolerance on the rise?
The simple answer is “yes”, but a better answer is more complex. Gluten has never been particularly easy for the human body to digest; it has been a part of our diet since we started making breads. However, gluten probably wouldn’t be so bad for us if we weren’t eating so much of it.
The average American is ingesting way more gluten than the body is prepared to handle. Gluten is omnipresent in snack foods, condiments, and even “health” foods like the aforementioned meat substitute products. Anything that’s instant, fast, or processed probably has gluten in it, which means we have exponentially increased the amount of gluten we’re putting into our bodies. We also tend to be deficient in vitamins that usually keep our immune system in check. Vitamin A, for example, is one vitamin that stops the immune system from attacking harmless proteins.
As we overload our system with gluten, we naturally weaken our body’s ability to properly digest it. With an already imbalanced gut due to the sheer quantity of things like sugar, alcohol, and antibiotics common to the western diet, our gut’s ability to handle gluten has been compromised.
To avoid gluten intolerance or gluten allergies, follow these simple tips:
- Don’t introduce grain into your child’s diet until well after infancy.
- Eat more raw and living foods.
- Balance the flora of your gut by eating fermented foods (such as sauerkraut and kim chi) and probiotic foods (such as kefir).
- Keep processed foods, snack foods, and fast food to a bare minimum, or avoid it altogether.