What Is Gluten and Is It Bad For Health?

Health & Wellness

Nearly 20 million Americans have sensitivity to gluten, according to statistics provided by BeyondCeliac.com. Unlike Celiac Disease, which is an autoimmune condition, in which the consumption of gluten causes damage to the wall of the small intestine, those with gluten sensitivity aren’t necessarily allergic to it. There are far more Americans who don’t have a true gluten allergy but yet are sensitive to it than there are people with Celiac Disease. In fact, only an estimated 2 million people have a genetic predisposition to gluten allergy. 

The market for gluten-free foods has exploded in recent years. According to data research firm, Statista, for figures last year, the gluten-free industry was valued at over $7 billion, up from roughly $2.8 billion in 2015, an increase of approximately 150%. 

Does that mean you, too, should hop on the gluten-free bandwagon? Is going gluten-free necessary for optimal health? 

What is gluten?

The term “gluten” comes from the glue-like structural proteins in wheat. Gluten is actually composed of two proteins: glutenin and gliadin. 

Thousands of years ago, when humans abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle for a more agrarian, communal form of living, wheat was far different than the wheat bread you’ll find in your supermarket. 

Through hybridization, wheat has undergone countless modifications. The result is that modern wheat now contains more genes than human DNA. In fact, humans have roughly 20,000 to 25,000 genes whereas modern wheat may contain over 330,000. 

Modern wheat crops are shorter than their ancient counterparts. But the size of the chaff isn’t the only thing that’s different. Industrialized wheat contains more gluten than heirloom varieties. And not only that, today’s wheat products have larger gluten molecules. 

The fact that modern gluten is bigger and more prominent than ancient wheat is the main reason why many health experts think it’s not gluten itself that’s to blame for gluten sensitivity, but rather it’s the modern processing of wheat. 

What are gluten sensitivity symptoms?

Gluten sensitivity, aka intolerance, may cause:

  • “Brain fog,” an inability to concentrate or focus for very long. 
  • Constipation
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal distention
  • Fatigue
  • Mood disorders
  • Joint pain and inflammation
  • Skin flare-ups such as eczema
  • Low iron levels (anemia)
  • Headaches

How Do You Know If You Are Gluten Intolerant?

The easiest way to tell is to avoid all foods with gluten. That means not just wheat but also other breads as well as beer, pizza, baked goods (unless they are labelled gluten-free) and everything else that contains flour, including semolina flour, which is used in pasta and other grains. 

Try going gluten-free for three weeks. If your symptoms go away, you can introduce one food with gluten at a time. If any symptoms return, you can isolate the offending food. 

If you want a more scientific answer, you can request a “gluten sensitivity antibodies cascade” lab test from a diagnostic lab company. (You can call your physician and see if one can be ordered for you.) This test will reveal if you have IgA, IgG, and igE antibodies. High levels of these immunoglobulin antibodies suggest gluten intolerance.

Reintroducing Gluten With Ancient Wheat

If you want to continue eating gluten or want to reintroduce it without risking symptoms, try consuming a small portion of an ancient variety of wheat. These heirloom varieties include emmer wheat and einkorn as well as spelt, teff and kamut. Because the gluten/gliadin molecules are smaller, and there’s less of them than heavily-processed wheat, you may find it easy to digest. And if that’s the case then you don’t need to hop on the gluten-free bandwagon.

And if you feel powerless to give up bread, try eating whole rye flour bread or organic sourdough bread. Sourdough is fermented, which means that it’s beneficial for your good gut bacteria. In addition, sourdough bread has less gluten than other breads. Purchase organic bread so you ingest less glyphosate.

Finally, keep in mind that foods labelled gluten-free aren’t necessarily healthy. In fact, gluten-free bread is often less nutritious than bread made from whole rye or other heirloom wheat varieties. In the end, a gluten-free potato chip is still a potato chip.

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