And How to Get Rid of It
Gluten is one of the health world’s hottest topics lately and has sparked an entirely new arm of the nutrition industry.
For some people, the attention of mainstream news and nutritional experts to the impact of gluten on our bodies is a relief, and for others the word, what it is, and what’s wrong with it is still a mystery. For years, no one recognized what a gluten allergy caused.
Until recently, people suffering with celiac’s disease had a small voice in the huge nutritional health world and were regarded as exceptional to the general public. They were the only ones crying out for gluten-free foods, but they were a small percentage of the population. Experts say 1 in 200 people have celiac’s disease, but increasing numbers of researchers assess that number as closer to 1 in 30.
Now, the upsurge in recognized gluten-sensitivity symptoms plus more research has exposed gluten as the culprit of much, much more than just bad digestion. According to the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research, there is a spectrum of reactions to gluten sensitivity, far beyond the immune-destructive ones associated with celiac’s disease.
What is it?
When we talk about gluten we refer to the protein in wheat, rye, and barley that’s found in the plant’s endosperm. It’s actually made of two proteins — gliadin and glutenin.
Gluten’s purpose is to feed the germinating new plant. But most of us know it as the sticky thread that develops when you knead bread, making it hold together and providing the chewiness we love in baked pastries, breads, and pastas.
Where is it?
Because our culture is so heavily addicted to wheat, and because we’ve exported the American diet all over the world, products containing gluten are everywhere.
In its role as a binding agent, not only is gluten part of your favorite bagel, gravy, ketchup, or three-layer chocolate cake, it is also found in such unlikely places as shampoo and conditioners, vitamins and supplements, beer, prescription medications, and Play-doh. Check the labels on your favorites of these and look for alternatives that don’t contain gluten.
But as far as grains go, if you want to avoid gluten here’s the list of no-no’s:
- durum/durum flour
- gluten flour
- graham flour (do not confuse with “gram” flour)
- spelt (German wheat)
- wheat/wheat bran/wheat germ/wheat starch
What does it do to us?
Here is the biggest problem: gluten produces inflammation, and inflammation is a root cause of nearly every disease. And what organ in our body is most sensitive to inflammation? The Brain.
In his book, Grain Brain (Little, Brown, & Co, 2013), award-winning neurosurgeon Dr. David Perlmutter says that inflammation caused by gluten sensitivity is responsible for the epidemic of brain disorders we live with now. Alzheimer’s disease was never as prevalent (and dreaded) as it is today. As research continues to prove a link between brain dysfunction and diet, Alzheimer’s is increasingly referred to as Type 3 diabetes1.
Surprisingly, gluten sensitivity is most common in Caucasians although the reason is still unknown. But certainly it’s not exclusive to one race, as the rampant rates of diabetes and diet-related diseases in our culture show. When you eat that yummy croissant or hamburger, it breaks down into polypeptides that go into your brain and bind to the morphine receptors there, just like opiate drugs do. And you get the same “high” as the drugs produce, as well as the addiction! 2
Our individual genetics determine our reaction to the inflammation caused by gluten — one person could develop heart disease, another could tumble into a full-fledged autoimmune disorder like celiac’s disease3. A recent study showed that babies of mothers with gluten sensitivity are more vulnerable to developing schizophrenia and other psychiatric disorders in later life.
Mothers-to-be frequently worry about the myriad things that could affect their developing fetus. Fortunately, now there are a number of tests to see if genetics predispose us to gluten sensitivity, and we’ll talk about them below.
What does it look like?
Given that about 83% of Americans have gluten sensitivity but don’t know it, how do we recognize it in ourselves or our loves ones? The list of possible symptoms is surprising and extensive, and increasingly common in many of our lives.
Let’s lift the list of symptoms straight from Dr. Perlmutter’s book:
- chest pain
- constantly getting sick
- irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- dairy intolerance
- malabsorption of food
- delayed growth
- ataxia, loss of balance
- digestive disturbances (gas, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, cramping, etc.)
- autoimmune disorders (diabetes, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, rheumatoid arthiritis, etc.)
- heart disease
- neurological disorders (dementia, Alzheimer’s, schizophrenia, etc. )
- bone pain/osteopenia/osteoporosis
- brain fog
- sugar cravings
What are the tests?
If these symptoms sound familiar to you or someone you love, the tests below will show you what your risk is for gluten sensitivity and the resulting inflammation that could affect your long term health. The beautiful thing is, these tests are economical and most insurance plans will cover them5.
- Fasting blood glucose
- Hemoglobin A1C
- Fasting insulin
- Vit D
- C-reactive protein (CRP)
- Cyrex array 3
- Cyrex array 4 (optional)
What can I do?
The shift away from gluten is a significant change in your diet, but doesn’t mean the end of enjoying grains. It just means exploring the world of different grains and starch sources. Let’s take a very quick look at the grains that don’t contain gluten. Each of these contains many more beneficial properties that you can easily find online6.
a. Amaranth — a native of Peru, this grain is found today in many places in the world — from Africa to China to India. It’s a protein-packer that can compete with any plant-based food for its nutritional value as well as its high mineral content, linoleic acid, and lysine — an amino acid that makes Amaranth easier to digest than other grains. Its glycemic index (GI) is only 21. And it’s easy to find in health food stores. Cook it like you cook rice, i.e., 2 cups water to one cup grain.
b. Arrowroot — is a starch taken from the roots of a number of tropical plants, the most widely-known being tapioca from cassava or the Japanese form of arrowroot, kudzu. Use it as you would wheat to thicken sauces, soups, etc.
c. Buckwheat — a popular breakfast grain because it’s easily used in place of wheat in pancakes or porridge. It has a nutty flavor and its low GI index (44) makes it perfect for diabetics and others for whom sugar is a problem. Like many grains, you cook it like rice.
d. Corn — be sure to eat the non-GMO versions to get the best nutrition with the least chemical impact. Corn is ubiquitous in our world and the root of many a wonderful culinary creation. In its raw form, the sweet yellow corn we all love to eat off the cob has very low GI (11) but the white has a whopping GI of 86, although it has twice the amount of protein per serving. This versatile grain is delightful raw, steamed, or dried and ground into grits or flour.
e. Millet — light and delicious in its flavor, easy to use in recipes, it comes in a variety of colors: white or yellow, gray or red. It is loaded with minerals — copper, phosphorus, manganese, and magnesium — and has a GI of only 21.
f. Potato — one of the fav staples in our American diet, the potato is a wonderful source of starch. Its low GI (7–29, depending on cooking method) makes it a perfect substitute for gluten-containing grains. The only problem with potatoes? Most of us only imagine them smothered in sour cream, salt, cheese, or creamy Ranch dressing. But the yummy flavor of potato is a perfect match with so many foods and can slip easily into soups and side dishes. And if you’re really in love, make potato vodka!
g. Quinoa — (pronounced ‘keen-wah’) is a nutty and nutrition-bountiful grain that cooks up in a hot minute and packs a powerhouse of protein goodness with an low GI of 18.
h. Rice — brown is better! You get more protein and it doesn’t contain gluten like white does. Brown rice comes in long, medium, or short grains, each with their own cooking time. And it has a lot more flavor than white.
i. Sorghum — a grain originating from West Africa but now farmed in many US states, it is best combined in small portions with other flours for cooking. But sorghum isn’t known for its use in baking — it’s known for the wonderful syrup created from the grain that can be used in place of molasses.
j. Soy — a well-known bean best recognized in its cooked-and-pressed form — tofu, but also as a dairy substitute in milk or ice cream, and as soy sauce, a seasoning. The GI of soy ranges from 1(tamari) to much higher 73 (soy vermicelli). Packed with protein and minerals, it’s a great gluten-free food. There is a connection between high soy consumption and breast cancer, so use this wonderful food in balance.
k. Tapioca — a great starch used as a thickener in cooking and baking; it comes from the cassava root (often referred to as ‘manioc’). Who among us hasn’t heard of (and love) tapioca pudding? Wonderful as that is, tapioca should be used sparingly because of its high GI (94).
l. Teff — because of its very high iron and calcium content and delicious flavor, it’s taking the gluten-free world by storm — and rivaling quinoa for packing a nutritional punch. Its low GI (26) makes it easy to use with no fear of spiking your blood sugar.
Having a gluten-free diet results in much more than just easy digestion — it means freedom from inflammation, the recurring culprit in diseases of all shapes and sizes.
For many people, making the dietary shift to gluten-free eating means a surprising release from unknown gluten-related addictions and symptoms, and opens a world of new tastes and textures, energy and vitality.
1. Perlmutter, David. Grain Brain (Little, Brown & Co., NY, 2013), 27.
2. Ibid, 63 .
3. Ibid, 61.
4. Ibid, 67.
5. Ibid, 17–19.
6. Ibid, 68.