Gluten and Gut Health

Gluten is a well-discussed topic within the health and nutrition discourse, and it seems like there hasn’t been a firm conclusion as to where and if gluten fits into a healthy diet.

Gluten has had a tough time over the years, as gluten is usually associated with bread and pasta which are arguably the two most stigmatised foods in terms of diets.

We witnessed the rise of carb fear over the years - with films and tv shows reinforcing these fears. Whether or not it was used for comedic purposes, it still shows that fear of carbohydrates and gluten are deeply ingrained into pop culture and western culture as a whole.

Fear of Gluten 

The fear of gluten societally happened gradually over time. The pioneer of the gluten-free movement William Davis has blamed gluten for arthritis, asthma, multiple sclerosis and schizophrenia. He also claims that even healthy grains are dangerous, and that gluten is a threat to humanity.1

Even though extreme takes like this aren’t necessarily the general consensus, there is still some level of fear surrounding gluten and carbohydrates.

This could be because it is such a huge area for discourse as well as a plethora of individuals pushing the benefits of living gluten-free. Then, there are those demonising it as a clean eating fad. This conflict of information and opinions can make it hard to know who to listen to. 

Misconceptions Around Gluten

Gluten can cause a negative response in some people; the most well-known being those with coeliac disease. Those with coeliac only make up around 1% of the population. However, there is more than one type of reaction to gluten and wheat. These include: 

  1. Coeliac Disease – An autoimmune disease in which the small intestine is hypersensitive to gluten
  2. Gluten Sensitivity - a clinical entity induced by gluten leading to intestinal and/or extra-intestinal symptoms that improve once the gluten-containing foods are removed from the diet
  3. Wheat Allergy – An allergy only specific to wheat, although there can be crossover symptoms between coeliac and gluten sensitivity. Those with wheat allergy risk anaphylaxis if they consume wheat.

While the severity of each is differing and varies by the individual, they are all tied together by Gliadin - a protein found in gluten. 

Those who switch over to a non-gluten diet often do so because they report the following symptoms:2 

  • Abdominal pain
  • Anaemia
  • Anxiety
  • Bloating or gas
  • Brain fog, or trouble concentrating
  • Depression
  • Diarrhoea or constipation
  • Fatigue 

    On the other hand, the symptoms of leaky gut syndrome are as follows:3

    • constipation, or bloating
    • nutritional deficiencies
    • fatigue
    • headaches
    • confusion
    • difficulty concentrating
    • skin problems, such as acne, rashes, or eczema
    • joint pain

    This calls to question whether or not some people seeking to cut out gluten really just have a leaky gut or a gut that needs healing. 

    What is Leaky Gut?

    Leaky gut syndrome is a condition which is attributed to the mucus lining of the intestines. There are gaps in the intestinal walls that allow bacteria and other toxins into the bloodstream which can result in a whole host of issues including gut inflammation.4 

    It's possible that those who feel intolerant to gluten may just have an unhealthy gut. The good news is that both of these issues have been researched extensively, and both can be lessened and healed by dietary changes and probiotic supplementation. 

    Studies have shown that probiotics can improve the health of the mucosal barrier of the gut. Those who took probiotics had a decrease in markers of intestinal permeability in comparison to those who took a placebo.5

    Probiotics and Coeliac

    Probiotics and their efficacy in helping with coeliac disease are still in their early stages and more research needs to be carried out, however the research so far looks promising.

    Studies so far have shown that probiotics have the potential to alleviate symptoms in untreated coeliac disease as they produce an increase in immune system changes.6

    So, it’s definitely worth consulting your doctor and looking into whether you possibly have a sensitivity, coeliac or an unhealthy gut. 

    Benefits Of Gluten

    With all the hype around gluten-free products and diet articles, it has seemingly been forgotten that gluten does actually have benefits. These can include:

    Lowered Risk Of Type 2 Diabetes 

    A long-term study was conducted by the American Heart Association that went on for over 30 years. Interestingly enough those who consumed higher amounts of gluten had the lowest risk of type 2 diabetes, which was 13 per cent lower than the group who consumed the least amount of gluten.7

    Reduced Risk When Exposed To Toxic Heavy Metals 

    A study researched the blood of 11,353 people and 55 of those had coeliac disease. The findings concluded that people who described their diet as gluten-free had higher levels of mercury, lead and cadmium in their blood in comparison to those who had a varied diet with the inclusion of gluten.8

    Reduced Risk Of Heart Disease

    Another long-term study by the Harvard School of Public Health analysed the data on the dietary history of over 100,000 people over 25 years. In the follow-up, over 6,000 cases of heart disease were found.

    However, the individuals with the highest intake of gluten had less rates of heart disease in comparison with those who had little to no gluten in their diet.9

    Digestion

    Gluten is notoriously hard to digest, but most of the highly palatable foods we crave contain gluten - such as chewy sourdough, focaccia, pasta, noodles, pitta bread, and pizza.

    If you have a healthy gut, you will have little to no issue indulging in these foods. Some report symptoms similar to gluten sensitivity and immediately cut it out of the diet. Unless a doctor recommends you remove gluten from your diet, it’s worth looking into your gut health so that you can enjoy a varied and enjoyable diet.

    Myths Around Gluten-Free Products

    It’s not just those who believe they have gluten sensitivity that is moving over to a gluten-free diet. Consumer surveys have established that people select gluten-free products for one of three reasons, “digestive health”, “no reason” and “healthier option”10

    The majority of these are not proven factual. As the majority of gluten-free products are highly processed, there is little to no benefit to adding them into your diet.

    The majority of these products also have a higher glycaemic index than those without, which could be why studies have shown that those on a gluten-free diet are at a higher risk of developing metabolic syndrome.11

    Healing The Gut

    The problem with the process of the elimination diet and restrictive diets is that they never seem to address the root problem, which the majority of the time is in fact gut health. Whether that be leaky gut or an imbalance in bacteria - switching to another radical diet can be equally damaging.

    An example of this diet switch is not being able to comfortably digest gluten, bread, certain vegetables, leafy greens, or legumes and then cutting them out of your diet and eating nothing but red meat, aptly named the carnivore diet. You may feel great, and your digestive health could be better than it’s ever been.

    Really, doing this is almost the same as having a bad leg, never walking again and thinking your leg feels so much better. The problem has not been addressed; you've just limited yourself to removing that particular issue without fixing the root cause of the pain. 

    It’s best to ensure your gut health is in check before making a dramatic change to your diet such as cutting out gluten. In some cases, it doesn’t require much intervention at all.

    It’s as simple for some people as taking a probiotic in the morning over a few weeks. Changes can also be made to the diet that heals the gut over a longer period of time. 

    Final Thoughts

    We live in an age where food directly relates to hype and fear. The rise of gluten-free products is brilliant for those who suffer from coeliac disease as it means their diets do not feel so restricted. 

    It's important to remember, however, that enforcing restrictions on your diet because fears of gluten have been oversold by a celebrity or a book author is not a good route to take. 

    At TheGutCo we want to keep you informed and up to date with nutrition and health news, however, we always recommend you speak to your doctor before making any dietary or lifestyle changes.

    References

    1. Specter M. Against the Grain. The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/11/03/grain. Published 2014.
    2. Clinic C. Gluten Intolerance: Symptoms, Test, Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. Cleveland Clinic. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/21622-gluten-intolerance. Published 2022. Accessed May 4, 2022.
    3. Eske J. Leaky gut syndrome: What it is, symptoms, and treatments. Medicalnewstoday.com. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/326117. Published 2019. Accessed May 4, 2022.
    4. Camilleri M. What is the leaky gut? Clinical considerations in humans. Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition & Metabolic Care. 2021;24(5):473-482. doi:10.1097/mco.0000000000000778
    5. Lamprecht M, Bogner S, Schippinger G et al. Probiotic supplementation affects markers of intestinal barrier, oxidation, and inflammation in trained men; a randomized, double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial. J Int Soc Sports Nutr. 2012;9(1). doi:10.11
    6. Smecuol E, Hwang H, Sugai E et al. Exploratory, Randomized, Double-blind, Placebo-controlled Study on the Effects of Bifidobacterium infantis Natren Life Start Strain Super Strain in Active Celiac Disease. J Clin Gastroenterol. 2013;47(2):139-147. doi:
    7. American Heart Association. (2017, March 9). Low gluten diets linked to higher risk of type 2 diabetes. ScienceDaily. Retrieved May 3, 2022 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2017/03/170309120626.htm
    8. Raehsler S, Choung R, Marietta E, Murray J. Accumulation of Heavy Metals in People on a Gluten-Free Diet. Clinical Gastroenterology and Hepatology. 2018;16(2):244-251. doi:10.1016/j.cgh.2017.01.034
    9. Lebwohl B, Cao Y, Zong G et al. Long term gluten consumption in adults without celiac disease and risk of coronary heart disease: prospective cohort study. BMJ. 2017:j1892. doi:10.1136/bmj.j1892
    10. Reilly N. The Gluten-Free Diet: Recognizing Fact, Fiction, and Fad. J Pediatr. 2016;175:206-210. doi:10.1016/j.jpeds.2016.04.014
    11. Tortora R, Capone P, De Stefano G et al. Metabolic syndrome in patients with coeliac disease on a gluten-free diet. Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics. 2015;41(4):352-359. doi:10.1111/apt.13062

     

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