What is Gluten?
Almost everyone today is aware of gluten. In case you’re not, gluten is a name for the two proteins — gliadin and glutenin — found in certain grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. (It is the gliadin protein that people react to negatively.)
Gluten is literally the “glue” that holds food together. It is found in many foods such as bread and other baked goods, soups, pasta, cereal, sauces and salad dressings. Gluten can even be found in your toothpaste and medications! My general rule of thumb: If it’s packaged, it probably contains gluten!
If you are one of the many people who has jumped on the gluten-free food trend, you may think you are eating healthier. And you probably are. In many ways going gluten-free is healthier, especially if you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, which is more common than you might think, and can cause a spectrum of symptoms that make you feel unwell.
So, if you are wondering whether you have a gluten sensitivity, or you’re not sure if a gluten-free lifestyle is good for you, or if you have struggled with going gluten free and haven’t fully been able to give it up, here is some information that may help you make your decision and stay on track.
Is Going Gluten Free Right for You?
Certainly, if you are one of the 1%-2% of people who have Celiac disease, you should avoid gluten. If you think you may have Celiac disease but are unsure, you should be tested.
Not all people with Celiac disease have abdominal symptoms. In fact, many more have vague symptoms such as fatigue or anemia. Celiac disease is considered to be an autoimmune disease and celiac patients seem to be at increased risk for other autoimmune diseases including Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Type 1 diabetes, Multiples Sclerosis and more.
Gluten sensitivity (or gluten intolerance) has become much more common lately and for people who truly have a sensitivity to gluten, it can also have serious consequences. While there is no medical definition for gluten sensitivity, it basically means that you have some sort of adverse reaction to gluten and if you stop eating it, your symptoms improve. Unfortunately, there is no clear way of diagnosing gluten sensitivity. You just need to stop eating it for a while and see how you feel on a gluten-free diet.
I have found that the best ways to determine if you have an issue with gluten (or any food) is to do an elimination diet. This means you take all gluten-containing foods out of your diet for 4 weeks. (The longer you can avoid gluten the better because gluten is a very large protein and it can take months and even years to clear from your system.) After you have eliminated gluten from your diet for a period of time, you can try to reintroduce it. If you notice that your symptoms come back, or that other symptoms arise, then you may have a gluten sensitivity.
Gluten Intolerance And Celiac Symptoms
Here are some of the symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity:
- Digestive Issues (bloating, pain, gas, diarrhea, and constipation, especially in children)
- Rashes such as Keratosis Pilaris (chicken skin on the backs of your arms)
- “Leaky Gut”
- Trouble Walking, Clumsiness, Loss of Coordination
- Slurred Speech, Trouble Swallowing
- Numbness and Tingling
- Joint Pain, Arthritis
- Fatigue, Chronic Fatigue Syndrome
- Hormone imbalances such as PMS, PCOS or unexplained infertility
- Depression, Anxiety
- Brain Fog
- Visual and Auditory Problems
- Chronic Headaches or Migraines
- Learning Disorders
- Developmental Delay
- Diagnosis of an autoimmune disease such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ulcerative Colitis, Lupus, Dermatomyositis, Psoriasis, Scleroderma or Multiple Sclerosis
If you have any of these symptoms, it may be time to say goodbye to gluten.
In addition, several studies show that some brain disorders, such as schizophrenia, autism, and epilepsy, may respond well to a gluten-free diet. Finally, there are many people who believe that wheat may be addictive, and even some studies suggesting that gluten has addictive properties. If you have unusual cravings for wheat this may be a symptom of “gluten addiction.”
Gluten and Your Thyroid
There is definitely a connection between thyroid disease and gluten sensitivity. With so many women at mid-life being diagnosed with thyroid disorders, and many others – including young women and even children — who go undiagnosed, it is important to consider that gluten may be a factor. In fact, a friend of mine recently told me that when she stopped eating gluten she had to cut way back on her thyroid medications, especially T3 as her body started to convert T4 to T3 again!
One reason gluten may cause or worsen thyroid conditions is that the structure of gliadin resembles that of the thyroid gland. Another reason may be related to leaky gut. When gluten particles leak into the bloodstream your immune system mounts an attack on them by creating antibodies to gluten. Since the gluten particles resemble your thyroid, those same gluten antibodies also attack your thyroid tissue.
9 Tips for Going Gluten-Free
The gluten-free food industry has exploded. But, the average gluten-free diet is built on the same foundation as the Standard American Diet (SAD)! The biggest problem with foods labeled “gluten-free” is the reliance on highly processed ingredients such as cereal grains, soy, industrial seed oils, and sugar, which are low in nutrients and high in toxins.
In fact, many processed gluten-free foods are loaded with higher concentrations of these toxins than their original, gluten-containing counterparts!
This may make switching to a gluten-free diet seem overwhelming at first, but it doesn’t have to be. In fact, once you understand that eliminating gluten from your diet is not about replacing the foods you used to eat with their packaged, gluten-free versions, it becomes relatively easy.
Here are my tips to help you transition to a gluten-free diet:
- Shop The Perimeter of The Grocery Store. I have always advised this because the healthy foods are located in the perimeter of the store and that includes gluten-free foods. So stock up on fruits and vegetables, lean meats, and eggs among others.
- Learn To Read Labels. When buying packaged foods, it’s important to understand what they contain. Foods that include wheat, rye, spelt, barley, or kamut contain gluten. Also, look for words like “spices,” “flavoring,” “modified food starch,” “maltodextrin,” “glucose syrup,” and “citric acid.” These all contain gluten. Be sure to read the ingredients list and also the “contains” section of food labels. Remember, the words “gluten-free” don’t necessarily mean the food is healthy. These foods are often low in nutrients such as fiber, iron, calcium, and B12.
- Choose Gluten-free Grains Carefully. Many people who go gluten-free do well with alternative grains such as quinoa, teff, buckwheat, millet or tapioca. However, others do better to remove all grains for a period of time and then introduce these gluten-free grains one by one. The reason is that some people can be cross-reactive to certain grains and their symptoms will not resolve until they remove all grains, at least temporarily. And remember, while oats are gluten-free they are often cross-contaminated during processing. If you want to try oats, look for oats with a gluten-free label.
- Avoid Packaged Sauces and Dressings. In addition to all of the added sugar, sauces, condiments and salad dressings contain gluten (like soy sauce!). Making your own sauces and dressings can be one of the easiest ways to create healthier meals.
- Have Fun In The Kitchen. Cooking healthy meals can be a time to have fun and try new things. There are many great websites with gluten-free recipes. There are also cookbooks. Start with two or three easy meals at first. Once you feel comfortable, move of to more challenging or time-consuming recipes. You may even want to try baking your own gluten-free breads. There are many fun kitchen gadgets that can make gluten-free cooking fun for the family. Try spiralizing zucchini and other vegetables to make to healthy pastas, or invest in a bread maker and learn to make artisanal breads.
- Download Gluten-free Apps. There are many gluten-free apps available that can help you answer questions when you are on the go. Downloading apps that help with grocery shopping or choosing restaurants or meals when eating out can be time-savers while you are adjusting to your new lifestyle.
- Lay Off The Gluten-free Sweets. Gluten-free cakes and cookies often contain very high glycemic starches such as potato starch and tapioca that can spike blood sugar even more than the standard varieties of baked goods.
- Get Support. Enlisting support is always a good idea when embarking on any diet or lifestyle change. This can help keep you motivated and feeling positive. Your support group can be a couple of friends who are going gluten-free with you. You could also join a support group online. Or try signing up for gluten-free cooking classes as a great way to meet new friends and share your gluten-free lifestyle. Finally, there are plenty of books, magazines and websites devoted to making going gluten-free easier.
- Be Kind to Yourself. Remember, you are making a lifestyle change. There will be bumps in the road. For example, some people may experience withdrawal symptoms for days or even weeks after giving up gluten. As with other elimination diets, this could include headaches, fatigue, depression, and cravings. These withdrawal symptoms will resolve, and your gluten-related symptoms will resolve after time as well. In the meantime, treat yourself kindly. Take time to meditate, go for walks, or take a detox bath. If your symptoms don’t resolve after several months, they may not be related to gluten. Be sure to consult your healthcare practitioner.
When Going Gluten Free May Not Be Necessary
Now, There is a good possibility that gluten is not causing your problems. I believe that one of the reasons why so many people have become wheat intolerant is not the gluten, per se, but the fact that we have lost our ability to digest it. And, we have been eating far too many refined foods.
In truth, the current varieties of wheat haven’t changed much since the 1860’s according to an article published in Top Crop Manager West in October 2017. And, there is no such thing as GMO wheat thank goodness! A recent study published in the journal Gastroenterology (Gastroenterology, 2017; 152: S45) found that it was the fructans in wheat that caused digestive problems, not the gluten. Fructans are types of sugar molecules found in wheat and some other grains. When researchers removed the fructans from grains but kept the gluten, study subjects did not get the bloating and digestive upsets that they usually experienced. And, here’s one more thing to be thankful for: the bacteria in sourdough bread digests the fructans and so there are no sugars to cause digestive problems. Hence, many people have no problem digesting this type of bread.
My colleague, John Douillard, DC, CAP is an Ayurveda expert and helps many patients introduce wheat back into their diets. On his website, he cites a number of studies showing that refined grains are the problem, not whole wheat. In fact, whole wheat has been linked to lower dietary inflammation, reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and reduced risk of Alzheimer’s disease in studies. But, diets lacking in whole grains can actually compromise your immune system and put you at greater risk for diabetes, heart disease and other health problems. That said, some people who are not celiac (ref to celiac disease vs celiac?) do not feel well when they eat gluten-containing foods. John Douillard tells you the reasons for this and how you can retrain your body to digest wheat (and even dairy!) in his book Eat Wheat: A Scientific and Clinically Proven Approach to Bringing Wheat and Dairy Back into Your Diet.
If you’re not celiac, here are some ways to tell if you might be able to reintroduce wheat:
- You are able to eat bread when abroad. In Europe bread is typically made in local bakeries without any preservatives. The only ingredients are wheat, salt and water.
- You are able to eat wheat-containing foods when you are relaxed. When we are on vacation, we are relaxed. It is much easier to digest all food when we are in a parasympathetic “rest and digest” state.
- You seem to be able to eat bread “sometimes.” Believe it or not, eating wheat in season can help with your ability to digest it because your body produces more digestive enzymes, including amylase, during the winter months, making it easier to digest fall-harvested wheat. Low levels of amylase are linked to wheat allergies and “baker’s asthma.” This is more likely when you eat wheat out of season, such as in spring or summer.
- You can stomach wheat certain times of the day. Your gut bacteria changes throughout the day and in response to your lifestyle.. Stressors can disrupt your circadian rhythms and therefore your gut bacteria making it more difficult to digest wheat. For example, if you work late at night and then try to eat a heavy gluten-containing meal, you may have a difficult time digesting it. However, you may be able to digest that same meal earlier in the day. Remember, regular sleep habits are linked to optimal health – including better digestion.
- You only eat processed wheat. Bread that you find on the supermarket shelves is highly processed and contains toxins, such as glyphosate (Round Up), which kill off digestive bacteria. Try fresh bakery bread, especially sour dough bread.
If any of these points resonate with you, you may want to give your digestive system a reboot and then try to reintroduce wheat. John Douillard recommends eating an Ayurvedic superfood called kitchari, which is made from watered-down rice and mung beans, to soothe your intestinal skin and start the repair process. Other “repair” foods he recommends include:
- Sweet potatoes
- Cooked beets
- Cooked apples
- Seeds (rather than nuts)
- Well-cooked or steamed vegetables
- Oatmeal, rice, quinoa, and millet
- Small, well-cooked beans and legumes (like mung beans)
- Healthy oils like ghee, coconut oil, and olive oil
- Small amounts of well-cooked white meats or fish
- Small amounts of raw honey (1–2 teaspoons per day)
- Ginger, cinnamon, fennel, and cardamom tea
- Small amounts of organic fermented foods added to each meal, (Yogurt, Kimchi, Miso, Fermented vegetables, real pickles, etc.
Are you gluten-free? Have you ever tried to reintroduce wheat into your diet? Please share your gluten-free journey and lifestyle tips with me in the comments section below.