We’ve heard about it from our friends, we see it on restaurant menus, our grocery store shelves are stocked… The question is: Why gluten-free, and is it for everyone?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. This means it’s also in our favorite beer, granola, crackers, bread, cereals, pasta, tortillas, imitation meat/seafood, luncheon meat, coatings, gravies, sauces, salad dressings, seasonings, and drinks, among other things. For some people, the protein can be eaten and digested with no noticeable issues. For others with gluten sensitivity or allergy, eating gluten can cause an array of symptoms including, but not limited to:
- Gas & bloating
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Abdominal pain
- Weight fluctuation
- Chronic fatigue
- Joint pain
- Migraine headaches
- Changes in mood
- Nausea & vomiting
The more serious form of gluten intolerance resides in individuals with Celiac Disease. This autoimmune disorder stems from a gluten allergy and ultimately attacks the small intestine. Because of the body’s natural defense mechanism to remove the gluten, the small intestine suffers damage to the internal walls, thus inhibiting nutrient absorption. As you would expect, this can have a detrimental effect on one’s health if they are unable to reap the benefits of various vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients obtained from their food.
Enteropathy, inflammation of the intestines, is most common in Celiac patients. Given that Celiac is hereditary, patients with a first-degree relative have a 1-in-10 risk of developing the disease. Outside of first-degree relatives, the disease affects nearly 1-in-every-100 people worldwide–probably why gluten-free menus and store items have become more of a fad.
Although those with Celiac Disease usually have major damage in their gut lining, the condition can still lead to symptoms outside the digestive system, such as:
- Osteomalacia & Osteoporosis
- Damage to dental enamel
- Mouth ulcers or canker sores
- Pain in the joints
- Dysfunction in the spleen
- Acid reflux
- Irregularity of menstrual cycles
- Issues in the liver and biliary tract, like fatty liver or transaminitis
- Lack of muscle coordination
- Cognitive impairment
There are, however, instances of non-celiac enteropathy that are similarly linked to autoimmune issues. Patients with Hashimoto Thyroiditis, Dermatitis Herpetiformis, Psoriasis and rheumatological disease run the risk of inflammation in the intestines. These patients, although not celiac, may also have gluten sensitivities.
The only way to manage Celiac, and other gluten-related sensitivities, is to follow a strict, gluten-free lifestyle. Aside from the gluten-laden foods mentioned earlier, gluten may also be found in:
- Wheat, which is labeled with many names such as durum, emme, spelt, einkorn, kamut
- Brewer’s yeast
- Triticale (wheat & rye hybrid)
And various products such as over-the-counter vitamin/mineral supplements, medications, toothpaste, shampoo/conditioner, soy sauce, etc.
If you suspect that you may have symptoms that are related to gluten-intolerance, the first step is to partner with a physician who can run the appropriate tests. The practitioner may be able to diagnose based on clinical history alone, however, they can also run genetic and antibody tests, and perform endoscopies that will reveal the cause of your issue.