Gluten-free: What the Science says

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a combination of proteins found in wheat and other grains like rye, barley and bulgur. This includes conventional cereals and flour-based products like breads, pastries, cookies, pasta, pizza, and many more. It is aptly named after the Latin for ‘glue’as it is naturally sticky and elastic.

Gluten Sensitivity – what is it and do I have it?

Gluten sensitivity (also termed intolerance) is divided into 2 categories: celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease and is very rare (affecting approximately 1% of the population). It is a severe immune reaction to even the tiniest ingestion of gluten so strict adherence to gluten-free is essential to avoid permanent gut damage.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity on the other hand, does not activate the immune system in the same way and therefore is a milder version. However, it can still cause an array of unpleasant symptoms including abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, brain fog, skin rashes and headaches. This is what most people mean when they said they have a gluten intolerance, however the spectrum of symptoms and severity for each individual is very diverse.

If you suspect gluten is a problem for you, celiac disease can be confirmed by your doctor after testing while non-celiac gluten sensitivity requires an elimination cycle due to a lack of identifying biomarkers. An elimination cycle is when you adhere to a gluten-free diet for a number of weeks and see if your symptoms persist. If not, gluten is likely the culprit and you should continue avoiding gluten. If you’d like to be more certain about your intolerance, you can load up on wheat gluten the day after your elimination cycle and see if your symptoms reoccur, but be warned this could lead to some discomfort.

Why is Gluten such a problem?

With the rise of gluten sensitivities, research on gluten and its effects on the gut has been growing. Unfortunately, so far we have been able to elucidate very little. We know from blinded research trials that gluten sensitive individuals score significantly worse on gluten diets, meaning we can rule out the placebo effect, but we will have to continue research to discover what the precise mechanisms are at work.

The theory behind gluten sensitivity is that the proteins in gluten cause gut inflammation. (This has been shown in rats but not humans yet.) Inflammation in the body means pain, heat, swelling and poor function. Inflammation in the gut also means that the gut is no longer tightly sealed and anything from bacteria to undigested food particles can leak out into the bloodstream and around the body. Gut inflammation has been linked to a myriad of conditions including diabetes, depression, anxiety and asthma.

As gut health is so crucial for overall health and well-being, many who may not have a gluten sensitivity have reduced gluten consumption or gone gluten-free as a precaution– after all, it’s not an essential nutrient,it may yet be shown to cause gut inflammation, and reducing gluten diets may help limit refined carbs to provide more space on your plate for nutrient-rich vegetables.

The Gluten-Free Lifestyle

Thankfully it’s becoming easier and easier to live a gluten-free lifestyle! Stock your shelves with essentials like quinoa, brown rice and bean-based pastas that are loaded with protein, fibre and flavour.

But always remember, just because it’s gluten-free doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Avoid gluten-free cookies, muffins and other baked products likely full of sugar and preservatives and instead make your own yummy treats with dried fruit, nuts, coconut flakes, nut butters and other naturally gluten-free foods.

Written by Rachel Erwin, Registered Nutritionist

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