Gluten Sensitivity – An Overview

gluten sensitivity

It is interesting to see how quickly (or not so quickly as the case may be) we update our bias based on new information and scientific discovery. A prime example of this idea would be the acceptance that dreaded fat isn’t actually the toxic macronutrient that it was once described as being. It turns out that most forms of fat actually promote health instead of increase cardiovascular disease.

Today we won’t be talking about fat, that’s a conversation for another time. This series of articles is going to cover gluten and some possible issues that people may face, the symptoms of someone who is sensitive to gluten, how to test for it and finally some possible treatment ideas.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is still among many circles regarded as being a myth. I have had many discussions, trying not to use the word argument here, with a few friends and colleagues regarding the possible issues that gluten can cause for people that have a particular sensitivity to it.

Once again I will be referencing Alessio Fasano as a reference to many of the following points. Being a lead researcher into celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and intestinal permeability his research has been forefront for many years on the subject of gluten related sensitivity. The best overview from Dr. Fasano I have come across is a great book called A Clinical Guide to Gluten Related Disorders where much of his work on the subject is summarised.

An Overview – Primer On Gluten Sensitivity

This first article will serve as an introduction to the subject, followed by subsequent articles that will cover celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, actual allergies to wheat, diagnosis and testing options and onto treatment options.  

So let’s get into it.

In the preface of his book Fasano comes straight out and states that “gluten proteins are poorly digested by the human gut.” A very general statement that is not specifically aimed at celiac or gluten sensitive people. According to Fasano’s work, gluten is poorly digested by everyone! He goes on to write that the poor digestion of the gliadin proteins acts as the first domino in an immune response in susceptible individuals.

Why the sensitivity to a cereal grain many people ask? This is very much up for debate but according to the research I have read our ancestral diet did not contain many cereal grains up until the shift from hunter gatherers to the rise of agriculture, something Jared Diamond has gone on record as being “the worst mistake in the history of the human race” (3).

In the same vein Chris Kresser writes about the shift from nomadic hunter gatherers to agriculturalists as having a deleterious effect on the settlers health referencing decreased bone density, anemia, infant mortality and tooth decay in the hunter gatherer turned farmer (4).

The relation between the shift and the decline in health is argued as being in part due to the dramatic shift in our diet from a wide range of wild foraged plants and animals to a small selection of domesticated plants and animals including wheat and other cereal grains. With the rise of agriculture, approximately 10 000 years ago, humans began the selective breeding of wheat that became a staple in farming communities.

The Dangers Of Gluten

Ok now we have set the stage of human evolution alongside wheat lets cover the broad strokes of the dangers of gluten for many people.

In a healthy, functioning digestive tract, food is consumed and broken down. Within the intestinal tract nutrients are absorbed and allowed to pass into the bloodstream while waste is shunted through and out the other side. Some foods (or food like substances as the case may be) are difficult to digest and pose problems for the digestive tract. Dr. Fasano has proposed that gluten is one of those foods. For everyone!

In his words:

“ The unusual primary structure of gluten proteins makes them almost impossible to be completely digested by humans. Therefore, the final product of digestion is a mixture of cytotoxic, immunomodulatory, gut permeating, or chemoattractant peptides that induce immune responses that closely resemble those triggered by microorganisms”

Dr. Fasano

This is big news, especially considering his proposed theory that intestinal permeability is a prerequisite for the development of an autoimmune disease. This leads me to think (thinking out loud here) that non-celiac gluten sensitivity could lead to celiac disease if given enough time.

Gluten Sensitivity Is Still Controversial

It is worth pointing out here, before we close this article that introduced gluten and the epidemic rise of gluten related sensitivities, that this is still a very hotly debated topic. Your average doctor may still be unaware that non-celiac gluten sensitivity is real.

On the same note, many people, including Dr. John Douillard, author of Eat Wheat, think that it is our damaged gut and disrupted microbiome that are to blame for the sensitivities. Either way it is important to get to the bottom of your personal food sensitivities. The 30 day elimination diet is a great place to start. Give it a try and pay attention to how you feel and remember to check back shortly.

References and Resources

  1. A Clinical Guide to Gluten Related Disorders
  2. Jared Diamond on Agriculture 1987 Article
  3. Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Diseases
  4.  Eat Wheat
  5. The 30 Day Elimination Diet
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