Is Gluten Really the Problem?

There is a nationwide discussion that has arisen in recent years as researchers have begun to establish links between gluten and gastrointestinal disorders such as IBS, Crohn’s and Celiac’s.  It has become apparent that wheat or gluten can effect those who consume it severely, moderately, or with no known reactions at all.  Rather than use this article as a forum to rehash the debate of whether or not wheat/gluten is harmful, I want to take this opportunity to start a discussion on why wheat/gluten might or might not be harmful to you at this time in your life.

As you read through this article you’ll see answers to the most frequently asked questions surrounding gluten–what is gluten, Why Is Gluten (Potentially) Bad For Me?, Which Foods Contain Gluten?, Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity and How Do I Know For Sure If I’m Gluten Sensitive?

The answers to these questions can be found immediately following the Human vs. Gluten: Who Will Win? discussion in which we’ll discuss individual (in)tolerance to wheat/gluten and what your level of sensitivity suggests about imbalances and deficiencies that may be present in your system.

HUMAN VS. GLUTEN: WHO WILL WIN?

In terms of certain individuals being sensitive to wheat/gluten and others not being sensitive (yet or maybe ever), it is important to have a firm understanding of INTERNAL VS. EXTERNAL ENVIRONMENT.  The wheat/gluten (or any other food you may be sensitive to) represents the External Environment–a substance from the outside world you are introducing to your body’s Internal Environment, which is composed of 7 major systems.  These are the Endocrine, Glycemic, Vitamin & Mineral Reserve, Inflammation, Immune, Cardiovascular and Digestive Systems.

Because the biochemical structure of wheat/gluten is the same across the board, we must be hesitant to point the finger at it as the number one culprit behind every symptom under the sun (as so many blog sites and research papers are attempting to do currently).  If the external substance (wheat/gluten) remains the same, and some people have a severe negative reaction to its consumption and others have no noticeable symptoms, then the reason must lie in the differences between the internal environments of the individuals.

In the wellness & nutrition aspect of my chiropractic practice I have had the opportunity to work with many individuals with known or suspected wheat/gluten intolerance.  I have had the opportunity to witness the positive effects of wheat/gluten elimination from the diet in conjunction with customized nutritional supplement programs to speed the healing process.  When assessing weaknesses in body systems through applied kinesiology I have found 3 body systems primarily involved in wheat/gluten sensitivity–the Endocrine, (Anti) Inflammation and Digestive systems.

Let’s take a look at the role these 3 systems play in moderating gluten reactivity:

(ANTI) INFLAMMATION SYSTEM – the ability of the body to recognize and respond to inflammation is the responsibility of this system.  the strength and function of this system is determined primarily by your percent body water–what percent of your body is made up of water.  this number should be 65-70%.  the closer your body is to 65% water, the more readily inflammation will be handled.  for a more complete discussion please read 7 Signs You’re Dehydrated.

inflammation effects

As you can see, the effects of inflammation extend throughout several systems in the body.  It’s been proven that the consumption of gluten and/or wheat leads to inflammation in the human body–but where inflammation is likely to effect you most is probably due to a combination of genetic tendencies (nature) and nutritional deficiencies (nurture).

ENDOCRINE SYSTEM – consisting of hormones and neurotransmitters (glutamate, serotonin & dopamine, primarily), the endocrine system is the primary communication system in the body relaying messages from the gut to the brain.  wheat/gluten consumption causes inflammation in the gut of every person who consumes it–how quickly the inflammation is recognized by the brain is determined by the health and balance of the endocrine system.

DIGESTIVE SYSTEM – the digestive system utilizes enzymes and microbiota/probiotics (healthy gut bacteria) to breakdown, neutralize and eliminate the wheat/gluten molecules that are the source of inflammation.  a healthy pancreas will produce sufficient enzymatic material to accomplish this quickly, limiting the amount of inflammation caused by the wheat/gluten.  a healthy balance of microbiota (healthy bacteria) in the gut will also break down the wheat/gluten more quickly, limiting exposure time.

The function or dysfunction of these 3 systems will in large part determine an individuals response and reaction to wheat/gluten-containing foods.  An individual with a healthy endocrine and anti-inflammatory system will respond less severely to the consumption of wheat/gluten.  An individual with the proper balance of good and bad gut bacteria and adequate pancreatic enzyme production will neutralize and eliminate the threat more quickly than a poorly functioning system, limiting exposure time and decreasing the harmful effects.

THE WELLNESS EXAM–HOW WE MEASURE THE 7 SYSTEMS

If you’d like to learn how we assess function of the 7 major systems in our office click here to read about our Wellness Exam.  The Wellness Exam is standard for all chiropractic and nutrition patients in our office.  It consists of 8 tests that evaluate the functional capacity of each of the body’s 7 systems–Endocrine, Glycemic, Vitamin & Mineral Reserve, Inflammation, Immune, Cardiovascular & Digestive.  At the end of the Wellness Exam your results are run through our Wellness Score calculator, and we then know how well each of your 7 systems is functioning on a scale of 0-100, with 100 representing optimal function.

Click here to read all about The Wellness Exam!

WHAT IS GLUTEN?

Gluten is a protein found in foods processed from wheat and related species including barley and rye.  It gives elasticity to dough, helping it rise and keep its shape, and adding chewiness to the final product.  The more refined the gluten, the chewier the product.  Gluten is often biochemically joined with starch which is rinsed out during the kneading process using water or a saline solution.

Gluten is not the only molecule in wheat that a person might be sensitive or allergic to.  Other substances like prolamin, albumin, glutelin, globulin, and gliadin can also provoke immune reactions when consumed.  27 potential wheat allergens have been identified, and an individual can be sensitive or even allergic to just one or several of the allergens.  Two people with an allergy to the same component of gluten can develop different symptoms from its’ consumption based on how their immune system reacts and which antibodies are formed.

WHY IS GLUTEN BAD FOR ME?

Gluten consumption is bad for two main reasons.  The first is the inflammation it causes in the gut lining.  This inflammation triggers the “fight-or-flight” response in your body because your body perceives inflammation as a tiger trying to eat you.  In the old days, when that tiger would jump out at you from behind the tree you had two options: fight, or run away.  When this “fight-or-flight” response (also known as the Sympathetic Nervous System response) engages, blood flow to your digestive shuts down while blood flow to your arms and legs increases.

You don’t want blood flow to your digestive system to turn off while you’re eating!  This will lead to a lack of stomach acid, bile, and digestive enzymes which will leave the food rotting in your stomach and gut.  This rotting food gives off gases (you’ve smelled them coming from your garbage can especially during hot summer days) in your gut.  These gases burn your gut lining, eventually creating tiny microscopic holes for undigested food to leak out into the bloodstream.  This is known as leaky gut syndrome, which is currently thought to be the basis for most auto-immune diseases including asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, etc.

The second reason to avoid gluten is due to the effects on your immune system.  For whatever reason, whether it’s the modern-day processing of wheat or the fact that humans just aren’t supposed to eat grains, our immune systems recognize gluten as a foreign invader, and mount an attack against it as if it were a bacteria, virus, parasite, fungus, etc.  Every time you eat gluten you will provoke an immune response.  This can either lead to an auto-immune condition in the body where the immune system is over-active and attacks your body, or a depressed immune system.

WHICH FOODS CONTAIN GLUTEN?

Barley and rye contain gluten, but an individual may be able to consume these safely because they don’t also contain the 27 known allergens that wheat does, which makes them a safer bet.

Spelt and kamut are wheats, and tend to provoke the same symptoms and immune responses as wheat/gluten.

Oats should not contain gluten unless they were cross-contaminated while being processed on a machine that has also been in contact with gluten.  However, a substance called avenin found in oats is associated with certain symptoms typically thought to arise from wheat consumption, particularly those symptoms that provoke an IgE response from the immune system.

Wheat gluten is often the basis for imitation meats.  Gluten is used as a stabilizing agent in products like ice cream and ketchup.  The protein content of pet foods is also enhanced by adding gluten.

Wheat is often a hidden (not found on food label) contaminant of bread crumbs, maltodextrin, bran, cereal, couscous, cracker meal, enriched flour, seitan, semolina, wheat germ, gelatinized starch, hydrolyzed vegetable protein, modified food starch, modified starch, natural flavoring, soy sauce, soy bean paste, hoisin suace, starch, and vegetable gum.

SYMPTOMS OF GLUTEN SENSITIVITY

Pain in lower back/hips, eczema, hives, asthma, migraines, autism, hay fever, swelling in joints, abdominal cramps/bloating, nausea, vomiting, joint pain, arthritis (including Rheumatoid), chest pain, depression, mood swings, diarrhea, dizziness, headache, palpitations, psoriasis, IBS, swollen throat/tongue, fatigue, and unexplained cough.  Reactions may become more severe with repeated exposure.

HOW DO I KNOW FOR SURE IF I’M GLUTEN SENSITIVE?

Identifying gluten sensitivity can be extremely frustrating.  If you have more than 2 of the symptoms listed above chances are you’re sensitive to gluten.  If you’re a human being, chances are you’re sensitive to at least one of the 27 known allergens in wheat.  Your current level of sensitivity and symptoms is highly dependent on individual factors and amount consumed.  In our wellness center we utilize applied kinesiology muscle testing which allows us to determine which areas of the body are being affected by wheat.  We also utilize Food Intolerance Saliva Testing to measure SIgA and anti-gliadin antibodies.  The SIgA levels tell us the extent of damage to the gut lining, and the anti-gliadin antibodies tell us whether the immune system is actively making antibodies against gluten.

FOOD SENSITIVITIES: WHAT THEY ARE AND ARE NOT

With all of the discussion and confusion surrounding the topic of food sensitivity we really need to set the record straight on exactly what a food sensitivity is and is not.

A food sensitivity is not the throat-swelling, eye-bulging, anaphylactic reaction that people with peanut allergies get when they consume or peanuts or that people with bee allergies get when stung.

That is a food allergy.

A food sensitivity can be any symptom related to inflammation, and that inflammation can effect any area of the body.  What does it mean to be sensitive to something?  It means that we react to it.  Whether it’s a “sensitive subject” or an area of physical pain in the body there is a reaction taking place.

My personal food sensitivity reaction is swelling in my nasal sinuses.  Within minutes or even seconds of consuming a negative food my sinuses swell and I have trouble breathing through my nose.

Left: The Large Intestine meridian line (energy pathway)

This is the energy pathway associated with the large intestine.
Dysfunction in the large intestine can lead to symptoms along this pathway
that can include pain, swelling, inflammation, irritation, etc.

Notice how it passes through the part of the elbow
that bothers tennis players
and can result in “tennis elbow”?

Why do some tennis players develop this condition
while others are immune to it?
Is it all a matter of technique, or is it possible
there are internal differences
that make one player more susceptible?

I also get joint aches mainly in my lower back and hips where x-rays show that I suffer from some mild bone degeneration.  It’s probably an area that suffers from a chronic low-level of inflammation on a daily basis that gets exaggerated.  Wheat, in particular, can throw my lower back out for up to a week after I eat it, but that depends on how quickly I can get my bowels moving regularly afterwards.  Wheat normally constipates me, but if I can consume enough fiber and water to bring my bowels back to normal within a day or two of eating wheat then my lower back pain may not be very bad at all.

Some digestive systems will react opposite to mine with diarrhea instead of constipation.  This is probably an “emergency evacuation” attempt by the body and is, in my clinical opinion, worse than the constipation case at least initially.  This type of dumping reaction will be found in individuals with moderate endocrine and glycemic imbalances.

There are other types of food sensitivity reactions such as itchy eyes or skin, especially along the outer arm from the shoulder to down just past the elbow.  This is the meridian line that the large intestine energy passes through in acupuncture and Chinese medicine and I believe there’s some correlation there.

Q: I tried taking wheat out of my diet and didn’t notice any change in how I felt.  Does that mean I’m not sensitive to wheat or gluten?

A: Wheat proteins like gluten can take months to fully metabolize in your body so removing these foods from the diet is difficult to do as a method of diagnosis.  Depending on the speed of your metabolism you would have to remove wheat for several months to see a change in certain conditions.  Also, if you consumed wheat/gluten for many years and the effect of that consumption on your body involved many systems (digestive, respiratory, skin, etc.) then the damage caused by that consumption must be repaired in order for the symptoms to go away.  While removing wheat/gluten would definitely be the first step, further healing would be required for the symptom(s) to improve.

Further Reading

Will Someone Just Tell Me What to Eat?

 

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