Gluten intolerance is becoming increasingly prevalent these days. In fact Coeliac Disease (the condition associated with gluten intolerance) affects on average approximately 1 in 70 Australians. However, approximately 80% currently remain undiagnosed. This means that approximately 330,000 Australians have coeliac disease but don’t yet know it. So what exactly is Gluten and why is it causing so many issues?
Gluten is the protein made up of peptides (molecular chain made up of 2 or more amino acids – the building blocks of protein) Gliadin and Glutenin found in wheat, rye, spelt, kamut, semolina and barely. Gluten (“glue” in Latin) is the protein that gives bread its airy and fluffy texture and dough its sticky texture. And glue like gluten is causing damage to the small intestine via an immune like response in intolerant/allergic and sensitive individuals. Here the lining of the small intestine swells and as a result tiny hair like projections called villi suffer damage and destruction. This in turn impairs the body’s ability to absorb nutrients hence leading to much malabsorpsion that in the long run leads to the loss of vitamins & minerals. Of course along side this are the array of digestive issues – bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, light coloured stools that float, nausea, cramps, gas and much indigestion!!
However, did you know that more than 55 diseases have been linked to gluten.
I will discuss a few of them;
~ Fatigue is a common symptom of gluten sensitivity and intolerance due to the autoimmune reaction-taking place within the body.
~ The same chemicals that are in your brain are in your gut. Hence if the brain isn’t happy the gut isn’t happy and if the gut isn’t happy the brain isn’t. Mood instability and depression have been linked to gluten’s affect on overall health. Gluten causes inflammation of the brain, which shuts down blood flow to the prefrontal cortex (part of the brain that allows people to focus, manage emotions, plan, organize and exercise short term memory). You may know or have heard that depression is caused by a lack of serotonin (chemical made in the gastrointestinal tract which contributes to our feelings of wellbeing and happiness). In fact 80-90% of serotonin is produced in our gut.
Let’s get a little scientific for a minute. Research shows that an inflammatory process is involved in the pathology of individuals whom develop depression. Signs of an inflammatory process, in particular increased pro-inflammatory cytokines (cell signalling molecules that aid in cell to cell communication in immune responses and stimulate the movement of cells towards sites of inflammation, infection and trauma) and increased levels of prostaglandin E2 (PGE2) have been shown to be repeatedly described in major depression. Just in case you were wondering Prostaglandins are produced by the body and are responsible for inflammation features, such as swelling, pain, stiffness, redness and warm.
Apart from gluten, evidence based research shows that depression can also be caused by parasites, bacterial or viral infections in the gut. Healthy gut microbes influence the levels of serotonin produced in the gut and hence if there is overgrowth of bad bugs or an infection is present the number of healthy bacteria decreases leading to decreased happy brain chemicals.
~According to Dr Alessio Fasano a pioneer into the research of Coeliac disease also believes that the brain degeneration/inflammation that gluten causes which leads to leakiness of the blood-brain barrier also causes leaky gut. Leaky Gut is a condition where intestinal permeability becomes an issue. Intestinal permeability disrupts the usually tight junctions of the gut leading to substances leaking into the blood stream à immune reactions. As a consequence the microvilli, which line the intestines and absorb nutrients become damaged leading to nutrient deficiencies.
~ A gluten allergy and intolerance can also affect the skin. In this case the condition is called Dermatitis Herpetiformis, an itchy, blistering, burning skin rash, occurring on the elbows, knees, back, scalp and buttocks. Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH) is a difficult condition to live with for those whom are unfortunate to suffer from it!! Before a full outbreak of the rash occurs, individuals may feel the skin burn or itch. Pimple-like bumps start to form, filled with clear liquid. These are quickly scratched off. The bumps heal within a few days and leave a purple mark that lasts for weeks. But new bumps continue to form as old ones heal. This process can continue for years, or go into remission and return again and again.
Other associated conditions with gluten intolerances are
- Autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis, Rheumatoid Arthritis, Ulcerative Colitis, Lupus, Psoriasis, Scleroderma or Multiple Sclerosis.
- Neurologic symptoms such as dizziness or feelings of being off balance.
- Hormone imbalances such as PMS, Poly Cystic Ovarian Syndrome (PCOS) or unexplained infertility.
- Migraine headaches
- Inflammation, swelling or pain in your joints such as fingers, knees or hips.
If you suspect a gluten intolerance my first suggestion would be to remove it completely from your diet for up to a month and closely monitor how you are feeling and if your symptoms start to shift. Then start to slowly reintroduce gluten-containing foods one at a time. For example week 1 reintroduce wheat and pay close attention to what unfolds. Then spelt then rye etc etc. This is important to determine whether gluten overall is the issue or whether it is wheat specifically and spelt and kamut etc are tolerable. Note that gluten is a very large protein and it can take months and even years to clear from your system so the longer you can eliminate it from your diet before reintroducing it, the better.
Of course the best way to determine Coeliac disease is with lab tests which include specific blood tests and biopsies via a colonoscopy and endoscopy. These need to be undertaken via a specialist. If the diagnosis is confirmed a change in diet needs to be undertaken. This may be overwhelming and challenging at first but once affected individuals learn what they can eat to regain health it simply becomes a way of life and who doesn’t want to feel and look healthy.