To Gluten or Not to Gluten…That is the Question…

We can’t digest it. It’s irritating to the gut. It’s hybridized beyond our body’s recognition, so looks like an alien spaceship to our immune system.

However. Not everyone will benefit from a gluten-free diet.

There. I said it. Heresy in the holistic health world. But supported by Dr. Alessio Fasano, expert on gastrointestinal health and researcher and professor at Harvard, so I think I’m ok making this statement.

Though everyone is negatively impacted in some way by gluten, there are many nuances to how diet impacts one’s health. A large number of people that have a variety of health symptoms do genuinely fare better on a gluten-free diet. But many people also rely on gluten-containing products to meet their daily needs for total calories, fiber, pre-biotic fodder for gut bacteria, B vitamins, iron, and magnesium. This reliance is even more pronounced when we factor in the US wheat flour fortification program. Fortification is helping many Americans following a standard American diet to meet their daily intake of iron, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, folic acid, and sometimes calcium.

When people consuming a standard American diet switch over to a gluten-free diet, using gluten-free counterparts to conventional processed foods (bread, pasta, frozen waffles, etc.), literature shows people on a gluten-free diet consume less vitamins, minerals, and fiber than when they were eating gluten.

Herein lies the problem: trading one problem (symptoms attributable to gluten) for others (new nutrient deficiencies, change in gut flora from decreased fiber).

Becoming gluten free is a personalized decision. When I support someone transitioning to a gluten-free diet, we track their new gluten-free consumption pattern to monitor their fiber and nutrient intake. Then we can see where new nutritional gaps may exist and address them accordingly by bringing in other additional foods that will meet those needs.

While I prefer to make personalized dietary recommendations based on symptoms and a person’s preferences, there are some conditions that I believe warrant an automatic gluten-free plan, regardless. Non-negotiable: 

-celiac disease – gluten triggers the body to destroy the gut lining, creating rampant inflammation while making it extremely difficult to absorb nutrients. Not addressing celiac disease also leaves one more susceptible to developing more autoimmune diseases later, not to mention all the effects from such high inflammation and nutrient depletion. 

-non-celiac gluten sensitivity – this can be assessed with an elimination diet and sometimes confirmed with genetic markers. Symptoms are random and far-reaching throughout the body and resolve by eliminating gluten. This is a very large and growing population in the US.  

-wheat or gluten allergy – no messing with actual allergies!

-autoimmune thyroid diseases – Graves, Hashimoto’s – gluten mimics thyroid tissue, which the body is already attacking in these disorders. Adding gluten just fuels the body to attack itself more, creating higher antibodies and more inflammation. 

-any autoimmune disease – gliadin, a protein in gluten, increases the production of zonulin, which essentially makes the gut more permeable. When we don’t digest our food well, and throw more zonulin into the mix, undigested food can escape more easily into the blood, triggering an immune response as the body tries to figure out what these undigested foods ARE. Autoimmune conditions typically have a leaky gut component to them, priming the immune system to be hyperaroused, and gluten just makes this worse.

-general digestive issues, IBS – sometimes these symptoms can be attributed to gluten directly. Sometimes gluten is exacerbating leaky gut due to increased zonulin (see above). Sometimes gluten is irritating the gut, since we can’t actually digest it well. Sometimes it’s creating issues due to exacerbating microbial overgrowths (see below). Basically, if you have digestive issues, trial a gluten-free diet for at least 3 weeks and see if you feel different.

-Candida overgrowth, microbial imbalance, SIBO – the carbs that come along for the ride with gluten just feed further imbalance; often people will notice bloating and gas from eating gluten-containing and other starchy foods.

-mental health issues – often driven by gut inflammation, which can be exacerbated by gluten. 

If you don’t fall into one of the above buckets and are going to eat continue to eat gluten, here are some ways to do so healthfully!

-choose ancient gluten-containing grains, such as Einkorn, spelt, barley, and rye. These grains haven’t been over hybridized like modern wheat, and so are easier to digest. And don’t seem as foreign to our digestive or immune systems.

-choose traditionally prepared sourdough breads. The ones where the grain has been soaked and cultured with probiotics, and whose mother lives in someone’s fridge in a bucket, lovingly fed daily. The live bacteria reduce some of the gluten content, decreasing the amount present. (Note: sourdough is not a free pass to eat glutenous grains when you have an issue with gluten!)

-choose organic wheat flours. Avoid those flours that have been chlorinated or brominated; these poor quality flours are often found in processed foods or inexpensive store brand bagged flours (Walmart, ahem, I’m pointing to you). Flour must be aged, and chlorine and bromine are used in cheaper flours to speed up the process to get the product to market faster. Bromine and chlorine are toxic to the thyroid, and I believe that over-exposure to them (from non-organic flours, as well as our water supply and dental procedures) is highly contributing to today’s hypothyroid epidemic. 

-fix any digestive issues that you have, knowing that the zonulin released from the gluten will temporarily increase intestinal permeability. 

And a loving reminder that those on a gluten-free diet need to be careful to get adequate fiber, B vitamins, iron, zinc, and magnesium. Gluten-free foods also tend to be higher in natural and added sugars, so another thing to watch out for. 

Have you gone gluten-free? Why? Tell us in the comments!

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