The gluten debate continues, often with more venom than opposition parties at election time. Why does this molecule ignite so much antagonism? After all, it’s just a food…Or is it?
Let’s start with what gluten is. It’s a protein molecule principally found in wheat. But gluten is not what it used to be. In the late 1960’s, gluten (and wheat) were cross-bred, hybridized and re-engineered to increase the yield of cereal grains. This produced over 40,000 varieties of wheat. It also increased the elasticity of wheat so that the bread would rise and be more chewy and delectable. Who doesn’t like fluffy bread? But as we’ve now learnt, once we start interfering with our food source, things can go a little hay-wire. This is what happened:
1. This gluten molecule changed from the cellular equivalent of a tennis ball to a volleyball.
The larger the protein molecule, the more challenging it is for your digestive system to fully break it down. It requires more stomach acid, more pancreatic enzymes and more small intestine enzymes. This explains why for some of you your stomach bloats like you’ve swallowed the volleyball after its ingestion. Your stomach acid, pancreatic and / or small intestine enzymes are insufficient to breakdown this burly molecule.
If this is you, you have three options: 1. Either exclude gluten, 2. Supplement with HCL (stomach acid) and protein digesting enzymes to help you better digest gluten, or, 3. Eat ancient grains like Einkorn which has 14 chromosomes versus spelt and other wheat which has 42 chromosomes. But the latter two options still aren’t ideal, as there is more at play than the size of the molecule.
2. Gluten stimulates zonulin, a protein that increases gut permeability.
Zonulin starts to open up the tight junctions that keep the small intestine impervious to bacteria and undigested food. When this happens, you set yourself up for a hyper-immune response to gluten and other undigested foods. If you don’t chew your food well (most of us), then once the gut is more permeable, more food can slip into the bloodstream and trigger an immune response. Think of this like a cool nightclub being taken over riffraff because someone knocked the bouncer out. It can be a mess.
If you want to continue eating gluten and decrease the likelihood of this response, you can take two actions: 1. Chew and chew and chew your food so you’ll only have amino acids (from protein), glucose and fructose (from carbs), and vitamins and minerals enter the blood stream. That’s all that should be absorbed into the bloodstream and no immune reaction will take place. Or, 2. Take glutamine to feed the cells on the small intestine so they replicate and decrease the likelihood of excessive permeability. This is risky as zonulin is still triggered but it acts as a mild counter balance.
3. Repetitive gluten exposure may already have damaged your small intestine.
If you’ve been eating wheat four times a day for 20 years (easy to do — cereal for breakfast, cookies as snack, croutons in your salad and bread with dinner) it’s highly likely the gut is already permeable and setting you up for an increased immune response to food.
If this sounds esoteric, let’s take it out of the gluten realm. Imagine drinking soda four times a day over a 20-year period, what’s the likelihood of diabetes? Pretty high. But if the rest of your diet is clean, you may be lucky and not get diabetes. But the vast majority will.
4. You’re super stressed.
Most of us don’t live on a little island in Greece where we eat from the land, have a supportive community, play and take time for prayer. We’re often too busy to have a bathroom break. Stress uses up the protein molecule glutamine that helps keep the tight junctions on the small intestine intact. The moral here: the more stressed you are, the more gluten is likely to be a problem. I have a rule for myself: on vacation I can eat gluten, but that comes with a caveat. I did the work to heal my gut. I talk about how to do this in the “How to Ditch Sugar” video series on MindBodyGreen.
5. You’re craving cookies, bread and pasta.
This is an easy sign to determine if you’ve already developed a food sensitivity to gluten or wheat. When you have a hyper-immune response to a food, you start interfering with the body’s production of serotonin. The immune system starts using up the raw materials otherwise needed to create serotonin. Less serotonin can mean more food cravings. (I also speak about this in more depth in the “How to Ditch Sugar” video series.)
6. Your gut bacteria is out-of-whack.
Your gut bacteria can be your salvation or your enemy. If you have an imbalance of pathogenic bacteria (or yeast or parasites) they’ll love the undigested gluten and will use it for food to multiply. They’ll also ferment it and give you a bloated belly. But if you have nice micro-flora (think flowers versus weeds) then the undigested gluten isn’t likely to cause much GI distress. Pathogenic bacteria also produces toxins that make the small intestine more permeable, setting you up for food sensitivities.
So….should you eat gluten or not?
- You have celiac disease
- You have an auto-immunue disease (see point 3)
- You get a bloated belly after eating gluten
- You’re super stressed
- You would be distressed about giving it up (see point 5)
- You eat the regular stuff — it’s comfort food for you and the heirloom varieties aren’t around when you need them
- You have mood disorders (not discussed here but you can check out this study)
- You eat it occasionally and choose heirloom grains like Einkorn
- You chew your food properly (or you’re happy to take digestive enzyme support)
- You’ve actively rebalanced your gut micro flora with anti-fungals, probiotics and glutamine
- You’ve taken gluten out of your diet for at least 9 months to decrease the reactively of it in the body, and now you can tolerate a gluten-light life
- You’ve only ever eaten gluten on an irregular basis
- You don’t have the genes for celiac or other autoimmune conditions
The debate over gluten will likely continue as most of us haven’t tested the integrity of our small intestine, the composition of our gut microflora and whether we have an immune reaction to gluten or not. Each of us is in a different place on our gluten journey and that gives us different opinion on whether to eat gluten or not based on our personal experiences. I hope the above article provides you with more insight into whether gluten is suitable for you or not.