The gluten debate

Firstly, what is gluten?? Gluten is a protein found in many grains such as wheat, oats, rye, barley and spelt. Contrary to what some people think, rice does NOT contain gluten. Rice has a glutinous consistency; however, it certainly does not contain gluten. The misunderstanding came about because gluten, is Latin for “glue”, or sticky!

However, the real debate that has been bubbling amongst medical and health professionals in the last few years has been, “is gluten bad for us?” While there is no black and white answer, we cannot argue with the sharp rise in indviduals displaying gluten sensitivity/intolerance. This can include digestive symptoms such as stomach cramps and diarrhoea, to more systemic symptoms such as eczema and skin irritation, headaches, fatigue and upper respiratory tract symptoms such as runny nose and hay fever.

Firstly, it is important that I point out that there is a huge difference between individuals who have diagnosed Coeliac Disease, and those with gluten intolerance. Coeliac disease in an overt ALLERGY to gluten, that an individual is born with, whereas gluten intolerance is a gradual process whereby our immune response begins to react to gluten as a result of damage to the intestinal tract

Our digestive tract is lined with a protective barrier to stop food particles, microbes and infections from crossing over into our blood stream and causing our immune system to react. However, this barrier is naturally permeable to very small molecules in order to absorb nutrients, vitamins and minerals. What can happen in genetically susceptible people, is that gluten can penetrate this protective barrier by causing the release of zonulin, a protein that causes damage to this barrier causing “leaky gut”.

When your gut is leaky, due to the damage caused by the gluten, (this damage can also be due to other allergens such as cow’s milk protein, soy, nuts and corn to name a few) things that should NOT normally be found in blood such as food particles, toxins, and microbes, gain entry into the bloodstream. Your immune system encounters these invaders, perceiving them to be foreign, thus mounting an inflammatory, immune response, leading to the myriad of symptoms mentioned above.

Food intolerances, including gluten containing grains, dairy, soy, nuts and various fruits, legumes, vegetables and proteins can be detected via a blood test. (IGg food allergy panel) The diagnosis of coeliac disease is made through a combination of blood tests and or gastroscopy and biopsy of intestinal tissue.

The treatment of coeliac disease is complete avoidance of all gluten in the diet. The management of diagnosed food intolerances is a combination of avoidance of the identified food culprits in addition to using certain nutrients and amino acids to repair the damaged gut wall.

Whilst all of this is sounding doom and gloom for gluten, Im not suggesting we all need to steer clear of the bread basket. It is clear from extensive research that gluten intolerance is linked to a genetic predisposition, but the question then becomes, why is it on such a steep incline?? Other theories also implicate the hygiene hypothesis (aka, our obsession with anti bacterials and fear of germs), environmental pollutants and toxins and our poor western diet high in process, refined “food”. Regardless of the causation, it is here, it is real, and it is on the rise.