How Safe Is Your Gut From Gluten

Gluten and the gut

Gluten and the gutYes, this is another post about gluten – fad versus fact. Be warned this post has some overshares of my recent experiences with wheat/gluten elimination. The debate rages on. One side saying that gluten is dangerous while the other side says the concern over gluten is ridiculous unless you suffer celiac disease. Healthy eating fads come and go. We’ve lived through fat free, Atkins, paleo and so on. Gluten free may be just another fad. Right? Well, maybe but all fiction is based on fact to some degree. We hear gluten is bad for us or at the very least causes issues but we aren’t told exactly why. I’m here to break down the break down of gluten and how that impacts your intestinal system.

Gluten And The Gut

This may be more like Beauty (the gut) and the Beast (gluten). Gluten is a protein found in wheat and other grains. For some people that protein triggers the immune system to attack the body and prevent the absorption of vital nutrients. It can also cause extreme discomfort. This condition is known as Celiac’s disease. The large intestine is not only responsible for extracting nutrients from our food, it is the root of our immune system. When things go wrong in the gut, they go wrong everywhere. Scientists are starting to believe what ancient healers believed centuries ago – most diseases start with the gut. But gluten may contribute to literally tearing your intestines a new hole.

Most people think of their intestines as a tube similar to a garden hose. It has no permeation (holes). The reality is our intestinal wall is comprised of cells held together tightly. Because gluten isn’t so easy for the body to digest it can cause the small space between cells to widen into a large hole. When the hole becomes large enough it allows food particles to enter the blood stream. The first immune response occurs in the gut, the second occurs in the blood. When a foreign body enters the blood stream an immune response is triggered. The body will create antibodies for the foreign body causing an allergic response and inflammation. Every time you eat that food thereafter, you will likely have an allergic or inflammatory response. This condition is referred to as intestinal permeability or, more simply, leaky gut.

How does gluten cause leaky gut exactly? The intestine breaks gluten down into more digestible proteins. For people who are sensitive to gluten the cells release a substance called zonulin. This protein regulates how tightly the cells are held together. An increase in zonulin can cause the tight junctions between cells to separate and form a hole. There are small structures along the intestinal wall called villi that are responsible for nutrient absorption. Damage to the villi can prevent the body from pulling out key nutrients. Gluten can contribute to this damage.

This is not a condition your doctor will likely attribute to your symptoms. Western medicine is conditioned to find a source for an illness, not that several illnesses may be tied to one condition. Your physician may offer you antihistamines or other drugs to alleviate the symptoms. This does not eliminate the cause. Some symptoms of leaky gut are bloating, cramping, fatigue, food sensitivities, achy joints, headaches, rashes, flush and/or sweating. Some will experience all or some of these symptoms. The reason leaky gut is often missed is because these symptoms are usually treated separately. The symptoms are also general and could be caused by any number of things. Leaky gut has been associated with conditions such as arthritis, irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma, psoriasis, eczema, and other autoimmune diseases.

In 2014 I went gluten free for a few months. I experienced some relief for my massive bloating. I mean, sometimes I looked six months pregnant. Given my travel schedule it was difficult to remain gluten free. It was eat gluten or go hungry. I recently went gluten free again starting in October of this year. Mentally it wasn’t difficult to give up gluten either time. I didn’t really miss wheat just the convenience of feeding myself quickly. This time around I also discontinued my allergy shots which I had been taking for several years. And, the most difficult, no alcohol for at least 60 days. I staggered this elimination over several weeks. I stopped allergy shots in September, a month later no alcohol, and a week later no gluten or processed sugar. Within a week of stopping the wheat the nasal congestion I had for six years started to alleviate. Within a few weeks I was taking full breaths through my nose. This is why I went to the allergist in the first place. My nasal cavities were so swollen (confirmed by an MRI of my head) I could barely smell anything. I also stopped sweating buckets, my legs stopped itching incessantly, my joints stopped aching (except my ankles that hurt upon waking), my face cleared up, and I didn’t have trenched armpits at the end of the day. During this time I also started taking glutamine and drinking home made bone broth. I stopped wearing antiperspirant opting for organic deodorant. This has more to do with heavy metals, however. Antiperspirant prevents the body’s natural detox system from working properly. I wanted to flush it all out. And, strangest of all, I can eat bananas again. I haven’t been able to eat a banana without intense stomach pain since I was in high school. I don’t know if it’s due to this but I am so grateful.

At Thanksgiving I ate wheat the whole week. Not back to previous levels, but enough to make the system respond. The glutamine and bone broth are meant to help heal a leaky gut by closing the holes. I believe they did the job. I didn’t have any bloating or discomfort. But I did have an acne breakout, itchy face, and unpleasant armpit odor.

Don’t assume it’s leaky gut though, serious symptoms should be discussed with your physician. Look for a doctor with an open mind instead of an open prescription pad. You can test for gluten intolerance or sensitivity, but many experts believe the best way to know is to eliminate it from your diet for at least 30 days and see what happens when you reintroduce it. Being gluten free for at least 30 days allows the cells in the intestinal wall to replace themselves and heal.

Wheat’s Separate Issue

The primary source of gluten in the modern diet is wheat. Wheat flour is found in almost everything. It’s really difficult to avoid. You may be asking yourself, what’s the big deal, our ancestors ate wheat without any problems – gluten free is just a fad. There is a difference between the wheat crops of today and the past. There is also a significant difference in how wheat foods are processed. Numbers don’t lie (well, they can, but let’s assume they don’t). A 2009 study published in the journal Gastroenterology revealed that celiac and gluten intolerance prevalence has increased over the last 50 years.  We have gone from 1 in 650 people with celiac or gluten intolerance to 1 in 120. During those 50 years wheat has been genetically altered to include new proteins our bodies have never encountered before. In fact, according to a 2010 paper in Genome 5% of proteins found in hybridized wheat are new. These new proteins may be causing more people to be gluten intolerant.

The other issue with wheat not related to gluten is that it causes high spikes in blood sugar. These spikes can make it difficult for someone to lose weight. The complex nature of the sugar found in wheat may also cause bloating and discomfort because the body has to work hard to break it down. This is made even more difficult by the way wheat is prepared today versus how it was prepared for centuries before the industrial revolution. Wheat was more “alive” when cooked. Today’s wheat is stripped of its nutrients. If you’re going to stick with wheat look for sprouted grains. These are packed with nutrients. One of the best posts I’ve come across regarding new and old wheat can be found at Grainstorm.

Breads may also contribute to an overgrowth of yeast in the gut. Yeast overgrowth, somewhat related to leaky gut, occurs when bad bacteria overtake good bacteria. The yeast overgrowth can cause all sorts of problems especially if it makes its way into the blood stream through a leaky gut. The symptoms of a yeast or candida overgrowth are very similar to those of leaky gut. Chances are to fix one you have to fix both. There are tests for this condition. Ways to fix it are to increase the intake of probiotics. Yeast can form a colony in the gut overtime. A more extensive plan to rid yourself of gut yeast may be required. That plan should include the following steps: 1) eliminate the problem such as foods high in sugar and yeast; 2) heal the gut to restore the tight cell connections; 3) attack the yeast and remove toxins; and 4) restore balance to the force.

Gluten Free And Weight Loss

Going gluten free has not been associated with weight loss directly. Most gluten free foods are still high in calorie because they add in more sugar. People who have gone gluten free and lost weight probably did so because they were eating healthier in general. Breads are a high glycemic food and drive blood sugar up which may lead to insulin resistance. Removing breads from one’s diet may help with weight loss in general. What may be helping with weight loss in a gluten free diet is as the gut heals from damage it becomes better able to absorb nutrients.

It’s hard to know what to believe with so many conflicting reports on the internet. Hopefully this post provides more clarity into the science behind why some feel it’s best to avoid gluten. The folks who say gluten is fine may or may not have good intentions. A large wheat producer is of course going to say it’s okay. When learning more about this topic understand the source and what dog they have in the fight. My dog is improved health, especially for black women. While there is little scientific evidence to suggest that blacks are more impacted by gluten sensitivity more and more are going off gluten and dairy. Unfortunately there has been little research on the effects of food, pharmaceuticals, etc. on the black population to understand the impacts of the modern diet and healthcare. It may be a reasonable assumption that since the black population has only been exposed to processed grains for the last 200-300 years versus thousands of years for whites, there may be inherent sensitivities we don’t yet know about.

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Nile Harris
Nile Harris, the Chief Chick, is a word weaver and dream believer with 20 years of experience in healthcare, finance, and education. This aspiring motivational speaker, TED presenter and LinkedIn Influencer is committed to valuing people, driving healthcare access and innovation, and weaving words that move people to action. Her views are her own.
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