I’m not a big debater. In fact, I avoid debates like the plague. Bring up ‘gluten-free’ at a cocktail party, and you’re sure to get an eye roll or two, if not a vehement, ‘gluten-free is BS!’ Um, no thanks. I’ll pass.

But, with each passing year more people are finding relief going gluten-free. More gluten-free products are on the shelves and it is becoming less (if only slightly) taboo to say you are gluten free. So, why does this idea of being gluten free keep gaining traction?

When trying to understand what the gluten discussion is all about there are three main components you need to understand:

  • Gluten Opens the Gates

Your small intestine is the area in you digestive system where you absorb your nutrients. Food enters your mouth and as it travels down stream it is broken into its chemical components to allow the isolated nutrients to pass through the tight gap junctions into your blood stream. Once in the blood stream, these nutrient molecules are delivered throughout the body.

Imagine these tight gap junctions are like bricks with slightly porous mortar between those bricks allowing the essential nutrients to pass through. Now imagine those bricks again, but this time with mortar breaking down and huge holes between the bricks. Instead of the chemical components of nutrients passing into the blood stream, we now have entire pieces of undigested food passing into the blood stream

Your blood stream is anticipating seeing the chemical components of what was once food, it is not expecting to see actual food. When actual food passes into the blood stream from the small intestine, it sees this as an invader, a pathogen, something that must be attacked. If this happens on occasion, your body can handle the issue and move on but a daily offense, or worse, multiple times a day? Eventually, your body can’t keep up.

Gluten stimulates the release of zonulin in the intestines opening the tight gap junctions (breaking down the mortar between bricks) and allowing for larger food particles to be released into the blood stream. This component alone has a huge domino effect of consequences. Alessio Fasano, world-renowned expert and founder of Massachusetts General Hospital’s Center for Celiac Research is quoted as saying, “zonulin is the biological door to inflammation, autoimmunity and cancer.”

  • Gluten Can Act as an Opiate

Once gluten has stimulated the release of zonulin and opened up the intestines, we now have a compromised barrier system. The trouble is, once one barrier system is compromised, all of them are including the blood-brain barrier. Those zonulin receptors in the intestines also exist in the brain.

When the blood-brain barrier is weakened, gliadin (the water soluble protein component of gluten) easily passes through. Turns out, gliadin has a very similar structure to opiates and it can sit in an opiate receptor site in the brain when given the opportunity. Opiates are analgesics, they block the transmission of pain and give you a relaxed detachment.

Take away the gluten, and withdrawal symptoms can lead to depression and fatigue. This can lead to a craving for bread. Do you know anyone who only wants to eat pasta and bread? This is why. They are literally addicted to the gluten because of its action on the opiate receptors in the brain.

  • Gluten has a Large Tribe of Friends

Often, people will say they have tried going gluten-free, but ‘it didn’t work’. The challenge is that gluten has a lot of friends with similar structures. Once your body starts to become overwhelmed by a compromised intestinal barrier, it gets less good at deciphering who is a good guy and who is a bad guy. This is called cross-reactivity.

Nora Gedgaudas describes it this way, “cross-reactivity, which is the tendency to react to substances either genetically or structurally similar to gluten or that our immune system has merely learned to associate with gluten.”

To your immune system gluten, casein (in dairy), rye, barley, spelt, oats, kamut, yeast, coffee and even chocolate can all look similar in structure. Other foods that have shown some cross-reactivity as well include: corn, sesame, buckwheat, quinoa, sorghum, millet, tapioca, amaranth, rice and potato. Rarely is someone just sensitive to gluten. If you only remove gluten from your diet, it is likely you won’t feel much of a difference.

So, what does this all mean?

Should everyone go gluten-free? And how in the world did we get to this place where we don’t tolerate bread?! I don’t believe in a one-size-fits all approach. But, what I will say is that in today’s world, we are dealing with increasing numbers of autoimmunity, cancer and other chronic, debilitating conditions. Gluten doesn’t help any of them. It wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep gluten to an occasional indulgence.

As for how we got here, there are many theories about this, but none have been proven. It is interesting to note some who don’t tolerate gluten in the States, do tolerate it in other countries.

Gluten may not be at the heart of the problem, but removing gluten from your life can still lift a significant stressor off your body to enable it to start healing. If you do find that you have tried being gluten-free and it didn’t seem to help, then it might be time to hire a practitioner who can really help you get to the root of the problem and finally find normal again.

References:

Delude, C. (2010, Winter). Celiac Disease: Eating Away At You. Retrieved from http://archive.protomag.com/assets/celiac-disease-eating-away-at-you

Fukudome S et al. Opioid peptides derived from wheat gluten: their isolation and characterization. FEBS Letters, 1992; 296:107-111.

Gedgaudas, N.T. (2009). Primal Body, Primal Mind. Vermont: Healing Arts Press

Gardner MLG. Exorphins and other biologically active peptides derived from diet. Chapter 33; in Food Allergy and Intolerance. Brostoff and Challacombe, eds. Sanders 2002.

Korn, D., Pietzak, M., Fasano, A. The Gatekeeper: Wheat and Gluten May Be In Your Future. Retrieved from http://glutensensitivity.net/TheGatekeeperKorn.pdf

Zioudrou C et al. Opioid derived from food proteins. J Biol Chem, 1979; 245:2446-2449.