The Gluten Conundrum
Gluten…..it is hard to figure out where to start about how I feel about this simple little protein. I am gluten free and have experienced a extensive range of reactions from people in regards to my diet and my reasoning behind it. So I am going to start this with the basics. I would like to bring awareness to this topic, I am not an expert in the field but I hope that this will be a simple cohesive statement about what I have learned since I have ditched the gluten.
Gluten is found naturally in many grains such as wheat, barley, rye and malt. It is a protein composite that gives elasticity to dough, helps it rise, and produces a chewy texture and cohesiveness to baked goods. Without gluten you have dry and crumbly baked creations that are not very appealing to the the modern palette.
Gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease are on the rise. One person in a hundred are diagnosed with Celiacs today. People are four and a half times more likely to test positive for the disease today than they were in 1950. Those who have undiagnosed Celiacs have a four times greater mortality rate than those who receive proper treatment.
Celiac Disease is diagnosed by testing for specific gluten antibodies in the blood, if these antibodies are present then there is an official allergy to the protein itself. The autoimmune response that the body produces to attack gluten is antibody specific and in turn destroys the intestinal villi in people with celiacs. The intestinal villi are little hair-like structures located along the the intestinal wall. Villi increase the surface area of the intestinal wall (just as the creases in our brain increase its surface area) and are responsible for nutrient absorption. The immune system attacks gluten when ingested and the villi are damaged in the process . When the villi are damaged nutrient absorption plummets as well as general intestinal function.
In patients with gluten sensitivity, gluten antibodies are not detectable in the blood, but the patients experience many of the same symptoms seen in Celiac disease, and find relief when gluten is eliminated from their diets. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity sufferers experience an innate immune response in reaction to gluten (which is a non specific/non antibody immune reaction, more of a general allergy/inflammatory reaction).Gluten sensitivity has not been proven to cause intestinal damage. There is very little known about gluten sensitivity and it’s affects on the body.
Gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease symptoms include; bloating, gas, abdominal pain, diarrhea, rash, joint pain, weight loss, discolored teeth, brain fog, headache, canker sores, fatigue, bone fractures, infertility, missed periods, malabsorption, irritability, tingling or numbness in hands and feet, depression, IBS, dermatitis herpetiformis, intestinal cancer, thyroid disease, and more. Gluten sensitivity seems to go hand in hand with many autoimmune disorders like lupus, arthritis, and thyroid disease.
Now here is the conundrum, why is Celiacs and gluten sensitivity on the rise? There is more than one answer to this question, and the combination of these answers is the key to what has attributed to the increase in this autoimmune disease (and most likely several others).
Theory # 1, Industrial Wheat is responsible. Industrial flour milling, the birth of white flour, genetic engineering, and processed foods all attribute to the rise of Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. In the late 1800’s the steel roller mill revolutionized the flour milling process. This new process allowed for the control of different components of the grain being milled. For the first time we no longer mashed the grain all together but crushed and separated the grains components. The whole grain is stripped of bran (outer casing), wheat germ, and wheat germ oil. The white endosperm is left, and that is what is ground into white flour. Even in “whole wheat” the grain is stripped and then some nutritionally insignificant grain husk (bran) is added back in for added color, texture, and some fiber. The wheat germ contains most of the essential nutrients, but spoils quickly. The purpose of stripping the whole wheat of all of these properties is to increase shelf life. Traditional whole stone ground wheat has a very limited shelf life and will lose much of it’s nutritional quality in 24 hours and start to go rancid within a week. The white endosperm flour has a long shelf life as well as not appealing to pests because of its low nutritional value. This shelf stable white flour is the backbone for processed food manufacturing. Vital nutrients have been eliminated from flour, creating a substance that offers no subsistence.
The second component of The Modern Wheat Theory has to do with Industrialized farming and genetic engineering. The 1950’s gave birth to the “Green Revolution,” the father of this movement, Norman Borlaug, pioneered a new higher yielding semi-dwarf wheat crop. This new wheat was planted with complementary synthetic pesticides and fertilizers that increased wheat yield on a massive scale. I am not going to go into an in depth discussion on pesticides here, all I will say is pesticides are toxic, bad for the earth and bad for our bodies. What our ancestors grew and ate has been replaced. The wheat that resulted from the Green revolution accounts for 90% of the wheat grown today. Norman Borlaug was awarded a nobel peace prize for his efforts in ending world wide hunger through his new farming technologies. These new hybridized wheat crops are genetically and biochemically far cousins of traditional wheat. Over thousands of years the human body digested and extracted nutrients from fresh ground flour and we changed the composition of it for modern convenience. Our intestinal systems do not recognize modern flour as a form our sustenance, it is recognized more as an unknown intruder.
I think this says it best, “For 10,000 years, we cultivated wheat, stored it, milled it and consumed it. The system worked, and it nourished civilization. Then, in the industrial era, we changed things. First we invented mechanical technologies to turn wheat into barren white flour. Then, we invented chemical and genetic technologies to make it resistant to pests, drought and blight and easier to harvest, dramatically increasing yield per acre. And, while we were tweaking genetics, we also figured out how to increase glutens for better “baking properties” (fluffier results). So, put another way: We have mutant seeds, grown in synthetic soil, bathed in chemicals, then deconstructed, pulverized to fine dust, bleached and chemically treated to create a nutritionally void industrial filler that no other creature on the planet will eat. And we wonder why it might be making us sick? If all this alarms you, the simple and obvious prescription is “don’t eat wheat”. Hence the gluten-free craze.”
Theory #2, “The Hygiene Hypothesis” The lack of exposure to beneficial and non beneficial bacteria, infectious agents as well as parasites can suppress the natural development of the immune system. Research shows that children exposed to lots of germs early in life are less likely to develop autoimmune disorders in adulthood. Children raised on farms grow up to be healthier adults because they are exposed to a diverse amount of bacteria in dirt as compared to children who are raised in large cities who don’t get that “dirt” exposure. Being exposed to and ingesting bacteria keeps our immune system keep busy and stay in check. Without bacteria and other germs the immune system and specifically its T Cells rage out of control and attack its host. We have better hygiene than we used to, which is a good thing and keeps a lot of infectious disease in check, but it seems that our immune systems have gotten a little bored.
Another explanation as to why gluten intolerance and Celiacs disease has increased is due to proper diagnosis. Doctors are recognizing the signs and symptoms and testing for gluten antibodies and when these are not present they are even recommending gluten free diets based on symptom elimination. This explanation can be attributed to many diseases that are on the rise but I don’t believe that it singularly explains the gluten conundrum that is plaguing our nation.
There are other theories, opinions, and beliefs as to why Gluten has become a common allergen. The ones that I have discussed here seem to carry the most merit and scientific support. As always, think for yourself, do your own research, and feel free to tell me your opinion. I have also just been reading up on how gluten can be a major contributor to Alzhiemers Disease so I will follow this post up with updated information as I learn it.