"Gluten Free" is the newest health trend, and although it has become a widely popular dietary choice, many people don't know what gluten really is or why it's potentially harmful to the body.
I'll jump right in and say that Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Gluten (Latinfor "glue") is the component of wheat that gives dough it's sticky, pliable texture. Gluten is what makes pizza dough maintain it's shape, what makes bread soft and chewy, and what makes pasta noodles, well, noodley. It is found in all wheat-containing foods, including cookies, bagels, breads, and beer. Gluten's sticky texture makes it a common additives in many foods you wouldn't expect, too. Think chewing gum, toothpaste, shredded cheese, and soy sauce. Gluten is unlike any other food we consume in the effects it has on our bodies.
Gluten proteins can be broken down into two components: glutenin and gliadin.
The first negative effect gluten has on the body is due to the gliadin portion, which triggers increased permeability in the intestines. Gliadin activates proteins called zonulins in the intestines, which loosen the tight junctions that keep your digestive tract intact. What this means is that things that are meant to stay inside the intestines, such as food particles, can sneak out through these loosened junctions and cause problems in the body. Another characteristic unique to gluten is it's ability to affect morphine receptors in the brain. When gluten is broken down by stomach acid, it produces tiny polypeptides that can cross the intestinal lining and make their way to the brain, where the bind to the same receptors as opiate drugs such as morphine.
To put it simply: gluten contributes to the destruction of your intestinal lining and binds to morphine receptors in the brain.
You may have also heard about gluten sensitivities and Celiac disease. Food sensitivities occur when your immune system recognizes a food as "bad" or "foreign" and launches an immune attack, similar to what it would do to any other threat (such as a virus or bacterial infection). Symptoms of gluten sensitivity can be digestive, such as diarrhea and cramping, or can be seemingly unrelated, such as skin rash, migraine headaches, joint pain and brain fog. Gluten sensitivities vary from mild forms to the most severe form: Celiac disease. Celiac is an autoimmune disease that is triggered by the gliadin in gluten in which the lining of the small intestine is disrupted. All symptoms of any type of gluten sensitivity are alleviated when gluten is removed from the diet. Because the symptoms are so widely varying and can be different from one patient to the next, gluten sensitivities and Celiac disease commonly go undiagnosed.
The negative effects of wheat don't end with gluten. The carbohydrate portion of wheat is a specific type of carbohydrate that is broken down very rapidly when it is digested. This means that wheat causes drastic increases in blood sugar, and this is why two slices of whole wheat bread (yes whole wheat) raise blood glucose more than 6 tablespoons of straight table sugar. Significant spikes in blood glucose contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, dementia, and more. Not so healthy.
But we've been eating wheat for years. So why is it becoming a problem now?
I'll take a step back and tell you why the wheat (and gluten) that we eat today is different from the wheat that our ancestors have been eating for generations, and why these differences matter to our bodies:
The original strand of wheat that was cultivated by our earliest ancestors was called Einkorn and contained 14 chromosomes in its DNA. This wheat evolved only a modest amount over centuries, until the influence of agricultural science interfered through hybridization, crossbreeding, and genetic modification for the past 50 years produced the modern wheat that we consume today, called Triticum aestivum. This modern strand boasts a whopping 42 chromosomes in it's DNA and is hundreds or even thousands of genes apart from the original wheat that was naturally bread.
The majority of this hybridization, crossbreeding, and genetic modification was initiated as part of a worldwide effort to reduce world hunger by increasing the yield ofcrops. The original tall, wispy Einkorn wheat stalks that you imaging blowing in the breeze across the plains have been replaced with a short, stocky, high yield Triticum aestivum that is more resistant to disease, drought, and heat. It has even been genetically modified to respond to specific brands of pesticides or fertilizers.
Despite these dramatic changes in the genetic makeup of the crops, no animal or human safety testing was done on the new strains. Although yields increased exponentially and made wheat products cheap and accessible, these products were released into the food supply without human safety concerns.
Fast forward to today and the effects of these genetic changes to wheat are starting to be seen. The body's immune systems doesn't recognize this genetically different wheat as food and often mistakes it as a threat. This is one reason that there has been a significant rise in the occurrence of gluten sensitivities and Celiac disease.
To learn more about the effects gluten has on the body and for helpful resources for going gluten free check out these books:
Wheat Belly by William Davis, MD
Grain Brain by David Perlmutter, MD
And keep an eye out for new gluten free items on our menu this fall!!