Gluten: What’s all the fuss?

Samantha Walker |Naturopath |Nutritionist| Herbal Medicine Practitioner

Most Australian’s would realise by now (I hope), that a steady diet of cheeseburgers and soft drinks will not lead to a happy and healthy life. What some of you might not know, is that there is another offender that most of us would never suspect to be causing problems. That silent villain is gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and spelt. Gluten basically gives these foods their elasticity and acts a bit like glue in the bowels.

For years it was thought that only people with coeliac disease had difficultly digesting gluten. There is recent evidence however that there is a spectrum of gluten intolerance throughout our population that ranges from the mildly gluten sensitive person to completely allergic (coeliac disease). Current estimates tell us that six out of 10 people are now gluten sensitive and would benefit from cutting gluten out of their diets. In Australia, the number of people with coeliac disease has increase four-fold over the past 50 years. This means that the prevalence of coeliac disease is doubling every decade. Hence all the fuss.

Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is what we refer to when an individual has trouble dealing with the pro-inflammatory gluten protein. It causes an irritation in the digestive system, making that person feel bloated, fatigued, moody, cause a change in bowel habits…the list could go on. It is estimated that over one million Australian’s are following a gluten-restricted diet. You can be tested for gluten intolerance through a number of diagnostic tests. Some of the most common blood test are IgA, IgG food intolerance testing, ALCAT testing and genotyping for coeliac disease. (All of these tests are on offer at my clinic). For pretty much anyone suffering from a chronic health condition, it is worth investigating whether or not gluten sensitivity is a contributing factor. In truth, none of these tests are 100% accurate. They can provide an initial screening to help people decide if they should undergo a gluten-free diet trial, but the gold standard for determining if you have gluten sensitivity is to completely cut gluten out of your diet for six weeks and see how you feel. After this period of time slowly add gluten back into your diet and see if your symptoms return. I have not had one patient who has done this and chosen not to remain gluten free after experiencing how good they felt not eating foods containing gluten.

So what causes this ’leaky gut’ you have heard us Naturopaths talk about? Let me introduce you to this very interesting molecule called Zonulin. It is a protein that modulates the permeability of tight junctions between cells of the wall of the digestive tract. It is the only known physiologic modulator of intercellular tight junctions known so far, and is released after a person consumes gluten. So to simplify this, basically Zonulin makes our gut very ‘leaky’. This ‘leaky gut’ is the number one cause of immune dysfunction and autoimmune disease.

So why can’t anyone digest gluten?

For 99.9% of our evolutionary history, humans have not consumed diets that contain gluten. The wheat we eat today which has been genetically modified (to make things worse), makes it very difficult to digest the gluten protein. In fact, we (yes everyone), only have the enzymatic capacities to digest fragments of the gluten found in modern wheat. Not one of us should be consuming gluten based products, not just those who are allergic or intolerant, due to its highly inflammatory nature in our digestive systems. It is also a driver of immune dysfunction and can trigger autoimmune conditions. I believe that this gluten free movement is just not a fad, but a realisation by the consumer that perhaps gluten isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

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