What is gluten ?
Gluten is simply a protein found in grain-products, namely wheat, barley and rye, oats and other cereal products. It facilitates the elasticity of bread dough and the nice, fluffy rise we like in our bread products. It also helps bread hold its shape and absorb liquids. Apart from bread, gluten is often found in pastries, pasta, pizza base, bagels, cookies, muffins, sauces, gravy, beer and a lot of other spirits and alcoholic beverages. Other grains such as corn and rice have similar, but less problematic proteins.
The grains mentioned above are a few of the many domesticated grasses found in our food supply today. They are descendants from wild grasses that have been managed and bred for 2000-5000 years since the agricultural revolution.
So what makes up a grain ?
14 per cent of a single grain kernel is bran. It is the outer covering of the unprocessed grain which contains vitamins, minerals, and a variety of proteins (e.g. gluten) and anti-nutrients designed to prevent the eating or consumption of the grain by predators and other hungry animals.
The majority (83%) of the kernel is known as endosperm which is mainly starch and some protein and this is the energy supply for a growing grain embryo.
The remaining 3% of the grain is the germ which is the reproductive portion of the grain where the embryo is found.
Why is it a problem ?
A wild grain is distributed by being blown in the wind and when conditions are right, the embryo begins the process of growth by using the endosperm as energy. This is how most grains reproduce. Some plants like blueberries or similar plants which have juicy, sweet fruits want to be eaten by animals in order for their seeds to be transported to new places where they can continue to reproduce and grow, guaranteeing the next generation. However, other plants which do not bear fruits and prefer to reproduce and spread by using the wind take a different approach and attempt to discourage their consumption by coating themselves in substances which irritate or poison any potential predators. Consider poison ivy for example, which has oils that can penetrate the skin of animals that come into contact with the plant’s leaves causing irritation and activation of the animal’s immune system. The immune system and white blood cells attack the poisonous oils and in the process release pro-inflammatory chemicals which cause a rash.
Grains behave more like poison ivy than blueberries and try to avoid being eaten by creatures in the wild by using chemicals that irritate the hungry animal’s digestive system. Now consider what happens when we eat grains in the form of bread or any other grain product.
How does gluten affect us?
Recent research suggests that the proteins found in grains, namely lectins, are difficult, if not impossible, for the human digestive system to break down. To cut a long story short, the undigested proteins manage to gain access to the bloodstream through the intestinal wall. These large protein molecules are easily mistaken by the body as alien invaders like bacteria, viruses and parasites and they’re greeted by our immune system which lies in wait, primed and waiting to pounce on any invading pathogens.
As mentioned earlier, our immune system’s response is to make antibodies against the foreign proteins and attack them, which can cause inflammation manifesting itself in symptoms such as bloating, irritation, gas, distension, unusual bowel movement and stomach cramps. It can even affect our core muscles function !
If we eat processed grains (unfortunately most store-bought grain products nowadays are heavily processed and no longer resemble their ancestors) on a regular basis for breakfast (toast, porridge or cereal), lunch (sandwich, bagel, pastry or muffin) and dinner (a meal based around pasta or rice, bread or pizza) and do so for an extended period of time this can become a serious problem in some individuals as the chronic inflammation becomes systemic, affecting other systems in the body other than just the digestive system.
This auto-immune response and the resulting inflammation causes further damage to the intestinal wall which allows further proteins to get through and consequently causes more inflammation. And so the vicious circle continues!
This damage can create a situation known more commonly as leaky gut syndrome or gut hyper-permeability where the gaps in the microvilli of the intestines, the part of the digestive tract where the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream occurs, become too large and undigested food particles make it through the mucosal barrier triggering the auto-immune response and chronic inflammation.
As a result our body begins to manufacture antibodies to all sorts of different undigested proteins which manage to get through the damaged intestinal wall. This means that the body has the potential to develop a whole host of food allergies which explains why some people also become sensitive to normally benign foods like strawberries, seafood, eggs and other yummy stuff that we tend to eat a lot of !
This whole process could ultimately lead to celiac disease which is becoming more and more common. Research has suggested that chronic inflammation may even underlie other systemic diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis and diabetes.
More recently, scientists has even suggested a link between inflammation and a whole host of auto-immune diseases including dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. The research continues ….
The body’s reaction to a leaky gut may cause inflammation and consequently damage to the arterial walls in our cardiovascular system and could potentially explain a possible link to high blood pressure and even heart disease and artherosclerosis. Whilst damage to other glands and systems of the human body which can be traced back to this inflammation can lead to a whole host of additional health issues…
Why is gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance and celiac disease more prevalent nowadays ?
This is when we discover that the problematic inflammation within the digestive system, particularly the intestines, is a bigger problem than most of us realised. Gluten sensitivity is likely more prevalent nowadays because of the quality of our food and what we drink.
It correlates with the amount of processed foods we eat, specifically the hybridised, processed grains we have been producing for about the last 60 years. The majority of food we see in supermarkets in 2013 is often processed in some way or another. The use of chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides and fungicides, chemical fertilizers, preservatives, additives like colouring, sweeteners and flavouring, and the use of antibiotics in farming procedures along with processes such as pasteurisation all damage the gut wall when we eat such food products.
As a result of the sheer amount of processed gluten-based products in most people’s diets, we become more prone to developing gluten sensitivity along with various other sensitivities and intolerances to other commonly eaten foods.
Furthermore, the problem is exacerbated by the quantity of alcohol (generally made from grains) we drink, genetically modified foods like soy products and the quality of our water supply which often contains traces of chlorine (which can wipe out our gut flora leaving us vulnerable to gut dysbiosis, where the ‘bad’ bacteria in our intestines outnumbers the good).
Another significant contributing factor in leaky gut syndrome is chronic stress which also plays a role in the damage caused to the microvilli in the intestines.
How do I know if I’m gluten intolerant or gluten sensitive or perhaps have leaky gut syndrome ?
Try an elimination diet. Cut all grains out of your diet for 4 weeks, including alcohol, and monitor your symptoms. Try to eat real food. You may find that the layer of fat which you could never shift was in fact partly inflammation causing distension of the tummy and you no longer get stomach cramps, bloating, gas or diarrhoea.
There is also the option of seeking a reputable lab test which could indicate exactly which proteins and foods you are allergic or sensitive to.
What can we do ?
We need to look after our digestive systems:
Avoid white flour products including bread, pizza base, pies and pastries, muffins, cookies and biscuits etc
Avoid processed food and concentrated fruit juices, hybrid grains and genetically modified foods. If a food wasn’t here 10,000 years ago – don’t eat it.
JUST EAT REAL FOOD – Look to consume grass fed meat, wild caught fish, lots of fresh, seasonal organic vegetables and fruit
Minimise your consumption of chemicals, pesticides, herbicides, preservatives etc by choosing organic produce whenever possible. If you can’t pronounce a word on the ingredient list don’t buy it or eat it.
Eat gluten-free bread. Although, be careful not to fall into the Gluten-Free trap and assume that anything labelled ‘gluten free’ is healthy ! Drink more, filtered mineral water and avoid sweeteners, flavourings and sugar…
For more information on this topic or to discover how to meet your body’s unique individual needs call Duncan at Bodyguards Fitness Service Ltd
Written by Duncan Edwards BSc (Hons), CHEK ITP