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Is Gluten Really That Bad for You?

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Gluten has become a common buzzword in many healthcare forums -- and for good reason. Most of us can identify that eating a daily diet filled with pop, hotdogs and potato chips is likely not the best for our health. However, there may be something less evident that is haunting your health and wellness: gluten.

Emerging science shows that gluten may be much more damaging than once thought. What was once believed to only affect those with a diagnosis Celiac disease (a debilitating illness resulting from an extreme gluten response) is now being correlated as an inflammatory trigger in almost one in four people today.

What is Gluten?
The effect(s) of inflammation triggered by gluten can be very subtle and often go unnoticed for years, if not decades. While many believe that merely going wheat free is all it takes, in fact gluten is defined as a protein composite found in multiple grains -- specifically wheat, spelt, barley, rye, triticale, kamut, and even oat. The term 'gluten' actually encompasses two primary families of proteins; glutenins and gliadins. Gluten is not just found in foods, but can also be found in many cosmetics and personal care products. Looking for gluten sources beyond food is especially important for those with Celiac disease. While diagnosed Celiac disease is estimated to affect one in 133 people, gluten sensitivities are much more common and current statistics now estimate gluten sensitivity to affect as much as one in four.

How does gluten affect us?
For those who are sensitive to gluten, it can have many deleterious effects. But let's take a quick step back for a moment. Food sensitivities are very different than a true food allergy. A true 'allergy' triggers an IgE antibody complex, of which most symptoms occur within seconds to minutes (think of those you know with a shellfish, bee-sting, or peanut allergy). A sensitivity is not an immediate reaction but can still be very problematic, often taking days to weeks for symptoms to appear. This results from an IgG, IgA, or IgM reaction.

Gluten is one of the most common food sensitivities known today. A gluten sensitivity can form immune complexes in our body that creates an inflammatory process. Chronic inflammation can lead to a variety of symptoms. A review paper in The New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 "diseases" that can be caused by eating gluten. These include osteoporosis, irritable bowel disease, inflammatory bowel disease, anemia, cancer, fatigue, canker sores, rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, multiple sclerosis, and almost all other autoimmune diseases. Gluten is also linked to many psychiatric and neurological diseases, including anxiety, depression, schizophrenia, dementia, migraines, epilepsy, and neuropathy (nerve damage).

Are more people being affected by Gluten today than in the past?
Gluten issues are being recognized more commonly today than in previous decades, and there are a couple of postulated reasons for this. First and foremost, most of us have been overexposed to gluten containing foods in the last century, primarily wheat. Gluten is an excellent binder and has been used in food processing for this very reason. It is found in many other 'non-grain' products including meat products, dairy, spreads, and even cosmetics. Processed food consumption has also increased dramatically exposing humans to more gluten than ever before in human history. Like most things, it's the actual dose that is the poison.

In addition, with popular books such as Wheat Belly (Dr. William Davis) and Grain Brain (Dr. David Perlmutter) more awareness has been created around the subject of non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Finally, what was wheat 2,000 years ago is not the same wheat we eat today. The traditional einkorn strain of wheat, has morphed (largely with the aid of mankind) into a different strain of wheat more commonly available today. Ultimately, these newer strains of wheat are not recognized as 'friendly' by our immune system anymore. This new 'food' may be deemed as a toxin by many of us sequestering an inflammatory immune response.

How do I test for a Gluten Sensitivity or Celiac Disease? There are gluten allergy/celiac disease tests that are available through a number of excellent labs in North America. All these tests help identify various forms of allergy or sensitivity to gluten or wheat. They will look for:
  • IgA anti-gliadin antibodies
  • IgG anti-gliadin antibodies
  • IgA anti-endomysial antibodies
  • Tissue transglutaminase antibody (IgA and IgG in questionable cases)
  • Total IgA antibodies
  • HLA DQ2 and DQ8 genotyping for celiac disease (used occasionally to detect genetic suspectibility).
  • Intestinal biopsy (rarely needed if gluten antibodies are positive-based on my interpretation of the recent study)

In light of the new research on the dangers of gluten sensitivity without full blown Celiac disease, it is important to consider any elevation of antibodies significant and worthy of a trial of gluten elimination. Many doctors consider elevated anti-gliadin antibodies in the absence of a positive intestinal biopsy showing damage to be "false positives." That means the test looks positive but really isn't significant. We can no longer say that. Positive is positive and, as with all illness, there is a continuum of disease, from mild gluten sensitivity to full-blown Celiac disease. If your antibodies are elevated, you should go off gluten and test to see if it is leading to your health problems.

What every person needs to know before cutting gluten out of their diet
Anyone looking to lose weight, improve their energy/focus, sleep better, improve skin complexion, lower blood pressure, improve mood and reduce pain in their body should try cutting out gluten products from their diet. You have nothing to lose, except feeling 'bad'. However, going gluten-free does not automatically equate good health.

Many people fall into the trap of replacing gluten grains with too many starchy foods such as corn, potato, tapioca, etc. Too many starches create insulin surges that create inflammation resulting in fat deposition. One should also be aware of the addictive nature of wheat and other gluten grains. Gluten increases endorphins that create a sense of well-being. When the levels of these molecules are reduced, one can experience a sense of withdrawal. That being said, that withdrawal phase will pass soon enough, and by remaining gluten-free can often reward you with a whole new world of well-being.

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