Oh, gluten – always the controversial subject. Many health professionals avoid the topic publicly because it can be so polarizing, and many people also feel like they don’t have enough information to formulate a strong opinion about it. Gluten also tends to be an emotionally-charged subject, and no one wants to alienate people from their audience. I definitely understand and respect that. I do have a strong opinion about gluten, though, and it’s no secret to anyone who works with me. If some groundbreaking information comes out in the future convincing me to change my mind, then I will happily admit I was wrong and revise this post with my updated opinion. I am 99% sure that will not happen, though, but never say never. When it comes to any topic, it’s okay to change your opinion if you learn new information – remember that.
However, as I write this, I’m confident in my stance on “the gluten issue.” It’s a topic I get asked about incredibly often, and after I discussed gluten in a recent Q&A podcast episode, I received a number of emails asking me to put the information in a blog post for easier reference.
I am a proponent of the paleo diet and lifestyle not just because it’s “paleo.” If there wasn’t a term for it, I would still eat and live my life the same way. I’m a fan of a paleo template because it naturally aligns with what I believe is generally best for people’s health. Grain-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, whole-foods — there are many terms for it. Going gluten-free has become a “fad,” but I think that everyone would benefit from a gluten-free diet… in the form of gluten-free whole foods, not gluten-free processed foods. That’s an important distinction.
Grains in general can cause issues for digestion and immunity. Phytates in grains can bind to minerals in the body and compromise their absorption. Meanwhile, lectins in grains can bind to insulin receptors, cause leptin resistance, and bind to the lining of the intestines. When the gut lining is damaged, this interferes with our ability to absorb nutrients necessary to have a healthy body and protect our bones, heart, brain, and other organs, and it also leads to inflammation throughout the system. That’s just grains. Gluten, specifically, is its own threat to our health.
What’s the deal with gluten? Before I give my spiel, remember that a number of experts have written entire books about this subject, and I encourage you to read those if you want as much in-depth, scientific information as possible. Grain Brain and Wheat Belly are two popular options, and Grain Brain was actually one of the first books I read before I went gluten-free. I learned much of what I’ll be explaining here from those books and other books I’ve read along the way.
Obviously, anyone who has Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity shouldn’t be consuming gluten. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the small intestine, which is triggered by the consumption of gluten. It can lead to digestive distress, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, fatigue, malnutrition, joint pain, depression, skin issues, and a number of other uncomfortable symptoms. Only about 1% of the population has been diagnosed with celiac disease, but it’s been estimated that 83% of celiac sufferers haven’t been diagnosed yet, or have been misdiagnosed.
Gluten should also be avoided for anyone who struggles with Hashimoto’s disease, an autoimmune disease where the immune system attacks the thyroid. This is due to something called molecular mimicry. Basically, gluten’s molecular structure is similar to that of the thyroid, so the immune system attacks the thyroid when gluten is ingested because it gets the two confused. I would also argue, however, that anyone with an autoimmune disease should completely avoid gluten. Most autoimmune diseases are rooted in leaky gut and inflammation, and gluten is a main cause of both.
Anyone who notices any negative symptoms after consuming gluten should of course leave it out of their diet. If you notice negative symptoms after consuming any food, then your body is better off without it, whether that be short-term or long-term. For example, if I consume gluten, I know that I personally can expect all or most of the following symptoms: bloating, nausea, dizziness, vomiting, extreme constipation or diarrhea, blurry vision, brain fog, stomach cramps, and rashes and blisters on my skin. Some of these symptoms, like bloating, irregular bowel movements, and brain fog, are symptoms that many people don’t even notice because they’ve lived with them their entire lives. It’s become their new normal. That was certainly my own experience. I didn’t recognize my extreme reactions until I had removed it from my diet for a few weeks, and then tried adding it back in.
What about people who don’t notice a reaction to gluten? Should they avoid it too? My personal opinion is a strong yes. Even if you can’t feel a reaction to gluten, that doesn’t mean it’s not harming your body or having an internal effect that you don’t notice.
Let’s take a step back and talk more about what gluten is. Gluten is a protein found in many grains that usually acts as an adhesive substance in foods and other products. Wheat is probably the most well-known source of gluten, but gluten is also found in foods like rye, barley, and spelt. You’ll find gluten in anything “bread-y” and most things that are “sticky.” Gluten is actually Latin for “glue.” Gluten is in pizza, baked goods, crackers, sauces, spreads, dressings, and many processed foods. Since it helps thicken things, gluten is also found in many personal care products, like hair conditioners, mascaras, and toothpaste.
Gluten is made up of two main groups of proteins, the glutenins and gliadins. People can react to either of these, to both of them, or to the smaller units within them. The main reason why gluten is a threat to health is because of its effects on the gut and brain. Gluten is toxic to intestinal cells, contributes to leaky gut, and produces inflammation throughout the body.
Leaky gut, or intestinal permeability, is at the root of most health issues many people encounter today. Gluten does no favors to the gut – it prevents cell reproduction, increases cellular oxidation products, changes cells’ membrane structure, and even kills intestinal cells. Gluten is a toxic lectin that has a structure incompatible with our bodies’ own digestive enzymes, which means it not only resists digestion but can also inhibit the function of certain digestive enzymes in general. This is why I think removing gluten from the diet is non-negotiable for anyone with gut issues.
Gluten impairs digestion, and then it creates an immune response as the body works to clear gluten from the system. All of this contributes to intestinal permeability. Over 70% of our immune cells are in the digestive tract, which is why leaky gut causes so much immune reactivity and can lead to problems like mood disorders, memory issues, chronic joint pain, weight issues, hormonal imbalances, digestive issues, and more. And yes, everyone experiences a breakdown of their gut lining, on some level, when exposed to gluten.
Whether you realize it or not, consuming gluten activates your immune system. Wheat, specifically, contains amylase trypsin inhibitors that can create an inflammatory response in the gut by stimulating immune cells, which is actually a problem separate from gluten sensitivity. However, inflammation occurs in the guts of non-celiac patients even without the formation of gliadin antibodies, which reveals that gluten can affect everyone whether or not they see antibody reactions on tests.
How does the whole “leaky gut” thing work? The consumption of gluten triggers the release of zonulin, a protein that opens the tight junctions between gut cells. To be more specific, it’s the gliadin in gluten that stimulates zonulin. When those tight junctions are open, this allows foreign molecules like proteins and bacteria to cross the gut barrier and enter the bloodstream. (The gut lining is “leaky.”) When molecules meant to stay in the gut pass into the bloodstream, the body recognizes these molecules as foreign invaders and mounts an immune response, leading to inflammation that can manifest in many ways.
Lipopolysaccharides are one type of toxin that can enter the bloodstream and cause a strong immune reaction in the body, leading to memory problems, depression, flu-like symptoms, chronic disease, and more. Going back to autoimmunity, some proteins might enter the bloodstream and look suspiciously like the body’s own tissue, causing the immune system to attack its own organs. This can lead to autoimmune diseases like lupus, rheumatoid arthritis, and Hashimoto’s. Foreign molecules can bind with receptors on your liver and fat cells, causing inflammation and cellular metabolism changes that lead to weight gain. Gallbladder problems, as well, have been linked directly to gluten intake.
When foreign molecules and toxins pass into the bloodstream, they might also cross the blood-brain barrier and enter the brain, mounting an inflammatory response there. There is a lectin in wheat called wheat germ agglutinin that can attach itself to myelin sheaths in the brain and block the growth factor that allows the brain to repair itself. This compromises the brain over time, without showing any immune reactivity at all. This is one way in which wheat harms the body without being “detected.” A significant number of neurological diseases have been linked to gluten exposure, and many individuals suffering from neurological issues show gliadin-reactive antibodies. Molecular mimicry can lead to an attack on the nervous system, even without any GI symptoms.
Gluten consumption is especially harmful in America because most gluten-containing grains are sprayed with glyphosate. Wheat, in particular, is one of the biggest offenders. Wheat is treated heavily with Roundup, which kills the good bacteria in our guts, prevents the growth of more good bacteria, depletes our bodies of nutrients, causes high levels of inflammation, and can lead to cancer. It changes our microbiome in a very negative way. Today’s wheat has more gluten and less vitamins and minerals than any grains people were eating upon the advent of agriculture. Wheat also contains opioids that make it quite literally addictive. As previously mentioned, wheat germ agglutinin, the inflammatory immune-disrupting protein in wheat, creates inflammation in gut cells and harms the immune barrier in the gut, leading to intestinal permeability. This is an issue separate from gluten, and that PLUS the effects of gluten itself can be a recipe for disaster.
I do think that a big reason why people have such a hard time removing gluten from their diets is because gluten-containing foods can be incredibly addictive. No one wants to eliminate foods they’re addicted to, whether or not they’re conscious of that addiction. Gliadin can stimulate opiate receptors in the brain, which is why they’ve been called “gliadorphins.” This can cause a number of psychiatric effects as well as some level of addiction, and it’s why people who eat a lot of gluten often go through a period of withdrawal when they stop. When you consider the fact that most gluten-containing foods also contain other addictive ingredients, like refined sugar, it makes sense why it’s so difficult for people to give them up.
Testing for celiac disease and “gluten sensitivity” is far from perfect and barely scratches the surface, which is why I don’t think people should wait for a test to tell them that they shouldn’t eat gluten. It can take people years to get an official diagnosis of celiac disease even if they are actively searching for that diagnosis. False negatives are common, and tests in general aren’t that accurate or comprehensive. Most doctors doing a celiac panel only test for 3 things – endometrial antibodies, alpha gliadin, and tissue transglutaminase. Gluten-containing grains can produce over 20,0000 proteins…. that’s a lot of proteins we aren’t checking. Plus, as previously mentioned, gluten does affect everyone whether or not they have celiac or gluten sensitivity, and it could be affecting you in a way that can’t be picked up on a test yet.
An interesting sidenote – I’ve heard some people argue that Celiac disease is actually an advanced human adaptation, and the negative symptoms felt from consuming gluten (although some people with Celiac don’t even have noticeable symptoms) are a beneficial response to a toxic substance we aren’t meant to consume. In other words, those negative symptoms prevent people from eating gluten because avoiding gluten is the way we were meant to adapt in order to survive longer, and the people who don’t have this adaptation aren’t meant to survive as long. Survival of the fittest… Darwin… you get the idea. Again, that’s not my idea, but it is an interesting perspective. Celiac incidence has increased by 3-4 times in the last 50 years, and gluten sensitivity is rising quite rapidly as well… food for thought.
There isn’t a clear-cut answer regarding how long gluten stays in the system, and it depends on the individual. For some it could be a few weeks, for others 6 months, and for others longer. Either way, when you consume gluten, it’s not something that will leave your system “quickly,” by my standards. I point this out to explain why sometimes people need to wait a long time to really get their bodies to a “clean slate” before being able to add gluten back in and notice any symptoms. Also, this helps explain why some people show stronger reactions than others, and why some people might feel fine if they have gluten every once in awhile while others need to eliminate it completely.
I want to reiterate that inflammation is at the root of every chronic illness, and gluten leads to inflammation. The consumption of gluten has been linked to a number of debilitating health issues like IBD, osteoporosis, autism, schizophrenia, depression, cancer, heart disease, fibromyalgia, and more. Remember that reactions to gluten can manifest in a wide variety of ways other than the typical bloating, constipation, diarrhea, and other digestive symptoms most people think of. Gluten consumption can cause allergies, acne, psoriasis, eczema, insulin resistance, blood sugar issues, hormonal imbalances, anxiety, joint pain, and more.
Epidemiological evidence suggests that almost everyone who eats wheat dies earlier than those who don’t. There are a number of longterm, chronic diseases that typically “pop up” later on in people’s lives and are thought of as “diseases of aging.” However, many of these diseases could be prevented if people start changing their diet and lifestyle habits much earlier on. In other words, these conditions aren’t just caused by habits or circumstances that occur the hours, days, weeks, or even few years before their onset. A condition that might pop up when you’re 50 or 60 could be the result of something you were habitually doing or eating when you were 20 or 30. This is why I’m so passionate about people educating themselves on what they’re currently consuming and starting to care NOW, even if you don’t notice any symptoms. What if something is happening internally as a result of your diet that you won’t notice until you’re 55, and by then it’s too late to change things?
For instance, many people argue that there are no studies showing that gluten causes Alzheimer’s. Well, there are a lot of habits that cause certain diseases that have no studies as “proof,” but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I’m not saying it is, but I’m also not saying it’s not. I personally do think that gluten consumption throughout one’s life can be a causal factor in neurodegenerative diseases, based on what I explained above in this post.
I think it’s self-limiting to wait for a study to “prove” any causal relationship. By the time that study gets funded, conducted (it would have to be a lifelong study and controlled properly – which is hard enough to conduct), reviewed, and published… you might not still be alive! I believe in making decisions based on what you understand now, not constantly waiting for a study to occur in the future as “proof.” Even though, we know that many studies are fallible. I’m more concerned about what’s actually happening in people’s lives and what they’re experiencing now. We can’t let studies or lack thereof dictate our lives when we have so much other information and knowledge about how the body works right now. We don’t have a study directly showing that gluten causes Alzheimer’s, for instance, but we have other studies showing the relationship between gluten intake and intestinal permeability, and an understanding of how this can affect the brain.
To sum it up, while those with Celiac disease or gluten sensitivity seem to have the strongest and most noticeable reactions to gluten, damage to the gut lining occurs in everyone who eats gluten. Since our gut health is really the foundation of our overall health, with intestinal permeability and inflammation being at the root of most major illnesses, I think it’s best if everyone avoids gluten.
If we can’t even reach a consensus about sugar, we probably won’t ever reach one about gluten. That’s okay. Everyone is entitled to live their life the way they want, and we should all respect each other’s choices! I respect anyone who disagrees with this, but I also respectfully disagree with them. However, the above explanation is why I don’t personally eat gluten, and why I don’t recommend friends, family, or clients consume it either.