Gluten – is it really a problem?
Gluten-free food is in every supermarket and sandwich bar, but why are so many people avoiding gluten?
Research suggests that around 1% of the population have coeliac disease (an autoimmune condition) and up to 6% have an intolerance to gluten. But many more are avoiding gluten and feel healthier as a result, so quite a large number of people have an interest in gluten-free foods.
What is gluten anyway?
Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley and rye, so is found in common foods like pasta, bread, cakes, cereals and beer. It is thought that the gluten content of grains has increased over the years to make bread light and springy. Western diets have also become very wheat-based, with so many people consuming large amounts of gluten in every meal and snack.
What happens in the body when you ingest gluten?
Gluten is broken down by an enzyme present in the gut wall into two proteins called gliadin and glutenin, and then it's absorbed into the body.
In both coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, the immune system sees the gliadin as dangerous and produces antibodies to attack it. This causes digestive problems like bloating, cramps and wind.
In coeliac disease, the enzyme that breaks gluten down is also seen as dangerous and is attacked causing damage to the gut wall. This makes it difficult to absorb nutrients into the blood, so coeliacs are prone to weight loss, fat malabsorption, anaemia, low vitamin D, osteoporosis and other health issues.
I don’t have digestive problems, so why should I give up gluten?
Gluten can cause problems for some people even if they don’t get digestive symptoms. Gluten can cause the release of zonulin, a protein that can break apart the tight junctions of the gut wall allowing toxins, microbes and undigested food particles into the bloodstream. This can lead to all sorts of vaguer symptoms like headaches, lack of concentration, low mood, fatigue etc.
So, giving up gluten may help with a host of health issues, but it is best to get tested for coeliac disease first. Speak to a nutritional therapist to ensure you are getting all the nutrients that you need.
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About Heather Lickley
Heather Lickley is a qualified nutritional therapist working in Edinburgh.