“I feel fine when I eat gluten,” says almost everyone- until they stop eating gluten for a few weeks. It’s common for people to insist they aren’t having an adverse reaction to gluten, only to find that they feel reborn once they remove it from their diets. Can we really be so oblivious to the havoc ripping through our insides? Absolutely. For those of us who have been eating inflammatory foods like gluten for most of our lives, digestive discomfort is our norm; we don’t know what if feels like to have a healthy gut and therefore we have no point for comparison. Furthermore, as a culture that is infamous for being out of touch with our inner reality, we tend not to have good body awareness.
At PaleoFTMC, we believe that healthy eating speaks for itself; nothing is more compelling than experiencing the value of clean eating directly. Therefore, our foremost advice to clients is to test out our suggested changes, so that they can see the benefits firsthand. Not everyone is willing to forgo their favorite gluten treats for several weeks to see the improvements for themselves, though- at least not without some convincing. This article is for nonbelievers who think they’re unique in their ability to tolerate gluten. Here’s why everyone should eat gluten free:
- It’s still unclear how many people suffer from an undiagnosed gluten sensitivity and, because research is still in it’s infancy, there are no standardized methods for diagnosis.
- Gluten sensitivity leads to gut inflammation, which causes systemic damage resulting in over 200 known symptoms (researchers are still learning the breath and severity of these bodywide symptoms).
- Gut inflammation is also believed to be linked to a myriad number of debilitating and possibly life threatening diseases including neurodegenerative diseases, autism, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
- Gluten based products are often heavily processed and high glycemic. Even if you you’re immune to the inflammatory effects caused by a gluten sensitivity, you’re still vulnerable to the damage caused by a high glycemic diet– which is possibly one of the most health threatening habits prevalent in Western culture.
What is gluten?
Gluten is the protein found in wheat and wheat based products and is responsible for the elastic, stretchy quality found in many types of dough and foods, like pizza dough.
There are several gluten related disorders, and they may be more prevalent than people realize. The most serious of these are celiac disease, an autoimmune disease that’s believed to affect about 1 in 100 people, and dermatitis herpetiformis, also called celiac disease of the skin. Few people realize that a person doesn’t have to have celiac disease or dermatitis herpetiformis to have a gluten issue, though. People can also suffer from a wheat allergy and- possibly even more commonly- from non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
How common are gluten disorders?
The short answer is that we’re not entirely sure. Studies suggest that the rates of celiac disease have increased five times in the last 25 years. Does this mean celiac disease is becoming more common? Probably not. Gluten disorders only started to garner attention recently, so research is still in it’s infancy and these disorders have only just started to gain traction among scientists and diagnosing physicians. Therefore, our medical insight into the diagnosis and treatment of gluten related issues hasn’t fully developed. The dearth of attention given to these disorders by physicians and the lack of standardized diagnostic procedures available means untold numbers of people suffer misdiagnosed or entirely undiagnosed. The wide range of symptoms associated with gluten sensitivitie furthers complicates the issue.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)
Out of all gluten related disorders, NCGS is the most recently recognized and remains at present the least understood. As explained above, its prevalence is unclear; because it’s not fully understood and because so many people live their lives undiagnosed, it’s hard to predict exactly what percentage of the population may be suffering unnecessarily from the disorder. Furthermore, its wide array of symptoms often overlap with the entomology of other medical problems, thus making the diagnostic issues even foggier.
Symptoms of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)
- Abdominal Pain
- Constipation or Diarrhea
- Brain Fog
- Joint Pain
- Chronic Fatigue
- Issues absorbing nutrients and malnutrition
If you think NCGS has a long list of broad symptoms, you’ll be shocked to know that gluten disorders as a whole are associated with more than 200 symptoms in their totality, which is one of the reasons why these disorders are so difficult to diagnose.
Why so many symptoms?
When a gluten sensitive individual ingests gluten, his or her body views it as a foreign invader and proceeds to attack it, inducing an immune response. This can rip apart the integrity of a person’s intestinal lining, damaging the sensitive villi lining the digestive track, and cause health threatening inflammation. In turn, because our gut health is so closely linked with the function of every other aspect of our bodies, this inflammation causes a cascade of debilitating effects in the form of the symptoms mentioned above.
Nutrition-related issues are rarely minor or isolated problems. As more research hits scientific journals every day, it’s becoming increasingly evident that what we eat may be one of the biggest predictors of our overall health. Because our diet is so intimately intertwined with every aspect of our overall function, food related diseases tend to be systemic and can often take years- or even decades- to manifest. Take Type 2 Diabetes, for example; caused by excessive ingestion of high glycemic foods over many decades, this debilitating disease can create a cascade of terrifying, body-wide symptoms including blindness and issues that ultimately require limb amputation. Similarly, the symptoms of gluten related disorders appear to affect a myriad number of our bodily functions, creating a wide symptom net. It’s range of symptoms can make scientists and physicians feel like they’re fishing for Moby Dick. Researchers are still trying to identify all of its effects.
We’re also faced with the issue of causation when trying to identify the symptoms of gluten disorders. People who eat gluten are also more likely to maintain other damaging nutrition habits, like high glycemic eating, dairy consumption, frequent indulgence in heavily processed foods, heavy sugar intakes etc. This, combined with the long incubation period for many of the diseases linked to these habits, can make it difficult to identify exactly which habit is causing which symptoms. Not only are researchers fishing for Moby Dick, they’re doing so in muddy waters.
Diagnosing Gluten Related Disorders
There are standardized methods for diagnosing celiac disease and wheat allergies. These typically involve a blood test that looks for antibodies specific to these disorders. Unfortunately there isn’t a straightforward screening method for NCGS. The standard protocol is to test a patient for celiac disease and a wheat allergy. Once these are ruled out, NCGS is confirmed by removing gluten from a patient’s diet to see if avoiding gluten resolves his or her symptoms. In a culture that reveres unquestioned certainty from physicians and that expects immediate answers at the tips of its fingers thanks to technology and the internet, people have difficulty accepting the reality of this trial approach.
How do you know if you suffer from a gluten-related disorder?
As described two sections above, the symptomology associated with gluten disorders is extensive and not well understood, which can make diagnosing such issues shockingly difficult. Blood screenings can be used to diagnosis celiac disease and wheat allergies. However, NCGS is most often diagnosed by the removal of wheat and gluten from a person’s diet in order to see if they feel better. Therefore, the only way you can be sure you’re health isn’t being adversely affected is by avoiding gluten for several weeks.
Why several weeks?
Like the inflammation from a sprained ankle injury, It can take several weeks after stopping gluten for the damaging intestinal inflammation caused by gluten to heal.
Alarming questions still unanswered
If other inflammatory diet related habits, such as high glycemic eating, are linked to so many debilitating diseases- which can often take years to fully manifest- why should gluten sensitivity be any different? Like many other nutrition issues, even a minor gluten sensitivity can lead to decades of gut inflammation, which is what’s believed to cause major life threatening health complications as we age. Some of the complications that are being most heavily investigated at present include neurodegenerative diseases (like Alzheimer’s and Parkinson disease), Autism, heart disease, diabetes, etc.
An additional consideration is the fact that gluten foods are high glycemic. High glycemic diets are believed to cause some of the worst diseases that plague our ailing Western culture. This is no small matter. High glycemic diets may be one of the most damaging habits in our modern culture. Going gluten free will help mitigate these health threats, as well as help you to stay lean. To learn more about the devastating effects of high glycemic diets, check out our article on the topic.
Below is a snapshot of some of the research presently garnering attention:
As is evident from many of these articles, the research is still inconclusive and in it’s infancy. It will be interesting to see what a few more decades of research reveals.
The benefits of a gluten free diet:
- Keeps you leaner
- Protects you from the harmful effects associated with a high glycemic diet
- Limits intestinal inflammation, which is linked to countless systemic and often life threatening issues
The present array of research does not paint an entirely clear picture of the effects of gluten sensitivity. It does however, suggest that a deadly Megalodon may be lurking beneath the surface of our favorite gluten treats, waiting to be fully discovered and understood by medical researchers. Because we don’t understand exactly how our gluten habits affect our functionality, aging, lifespan, and overall health, it can sometimes feel easy to shrug off concerns. If we take our health seriously, though, we can’t ignore the fact that there is sufficient research to support the necessity of a gluten free lifestyle. It’s not clear how many people are sensitive to gluten; for all we know, it’s possible that everyone has some level of sensitivity. Even if you are fortunate enough not to have a sensitivity to gluten, you have to remember that gluten based foods are high glycemic and that high glycemic diets are linked to some of the most deleterious health issues. So yes, giving up gluten may involve forgoing some of your favorite indulgences on a regular basis, but, even if you aren’t sensitive to gluten, abstaining could make the difference in the number of years you have to enjoy the other things you love in life.