You probably heard of gluten or at least “gluten free” since almost every supermarket has a ‘gluten free’ range and as many, you probably assigned this to a “fad” perhaps linking ‘gluten free’ to a trend or something “pretty girls” or only those with celiac disease talk about or eat.
And while it may seem that there’s enough information about gluten (Google for instance, brings around 91 million and 700 thousand results for “gluten” but with that many search results it can get a little daunting, especially since) it’s not that easy to find answers to all the ‘gluten’ question in one place, which is precisely what this article intends to do: to answer all – important questions relating to gluten so that you can once and for all understand what gluten is, why eating foods that contain gluten isn’t beneficial or even necessary and finally how to live a gluten-free life in a world of pizzas, croissants, burgers and sourdough toast…
So what is gluten?
In simple words, gluten is a storage protein of a grain such as wheat, rye, barley, kamut to name just a few. (For ease of understanding, think of a grain as your house and gluten as a storage unit at home.) Gluten, based on the characteristics can also be further categorised into Gliadins and Glutenins. Gliadin in this case is what we really talk about when we talk about gluten.
So since I mentioned that gluten is a protein I want to explain how it acts in our gut. Now, as with all proteins, in order for us to absorb them, though the process of digestion we have to break them down into their smallest units called amino acids. However it’s not exactly a straight forward process since proteins have to be firstly divided into peptides before being broken down into amino acids (for ease of understanding think large-smaller-smallest = protein-peptides-amino acids). So gliadins, which make up for the majority of gluten, has to be broken down into amino acids (smallest absorbable units of protein) for absorption. The problem with this process or gluten itself is that no human-being can fully break down gluten into its smallest units because we (humans) simply do not have the enzyme to do that. So how do we digest it, you ask?And why don’t we have the enzyme if we’ve been eating gluten ‘forever’ and finally, why have we all not fallen sick if gluten was/is that bad?
Well, in our gut gliadin is degraded into peptides (in fact polypeptides which are peptides with more than 10 amino acids) called exorphins.
This means 2 things:
Our gut can not fully digest and therefore absorb gluten constituents meaning that these undigested particles remain in the intestines, which through the chain of events causes leaky gut (which I’ll explain below).
And ‘thanks’ to structural similarity of exorphins, they can bind to opioid receptors and mimic opioid effect (opioids can cause anything from constipation, lethargy to paranoia etc).
Sounds simple and not at all that bad?Well, maybe it wouldn’t be that bad if gut wasn’t such an important, in fact in my personal opinion, central area of health and wellbeing for the simple key facts that:
1. The gut houses most of our immune capacity (Hello, microbiota!) so poor gut health = poor immunity
2. It’s the place of digestion and absorption so poor gut health=poor digestion/absorption
3. It produces various vitamins such biotin, B1, B9, B12, vitamin K, and short chain amino acid.
4. It produces certain hormones such as serotonin. In fact it produces around 80-90% of serotonin which is linked to improved mood and cognitive function in general.
5. And last, but by no means least (like literally this could be the star of this article) – the gluten link with mental health through hormone and short chain fatty acid production, enteric nervous system and my personal favourite – the ‘missing link’ aka the vagus nerve link to central nervous system.
I think it’s crucial to keep all above points in mind when thinking about anything that can potentially affect gut, because it is one of the most important ( and fascinating) areas of wellbeing. (OK – this is perhaps my bit of enthusiasm and interest in the gut, but the fact of the matter is that no one system or organ or anything in life is ‘independent’ of anything or in other words everything is connected. (Basically we live in a domino world and we are a domino world itself. Nicely put, no?)
OK – so let’s discuss gluten and it’s relationship to leaky gut and the opioid receptors.
Gluten and gut permeability
After we ingest and part-digest our foods in mouth and the stomach, the foods continue moving through gastrointestinal tract starting off with small intestine and then finally the large intestine. The small intestine is where the most chemical digestion and absorption happens. It is here that gluten has to be broken down into amino acids for absorption which happens by active transport (think of absorption process as a delivery service where a special transporter/postman is used for the amino acids to go from intestines into blood stream where it can then be carried around the body and used as necessary). The need for a transporter/postman is a good thing, since it prevents large molecules like proteins or viruses, parasites and toxins from entering into blood stream. It’s a protective thing. It keeps large molecules and potential foes in the intestines for excretion. But what happens when we eat gluten? Gluten stimulates intestines to release zonulin, which acts on the intestinal wall and makes it permeable by somewhat dis-assembling tight-junctions (connections between the cells that hold them together) and creating gaps between cells thus allowing unwanted and possibly undigested material to ‘leak’ into lamina propria (a layer of tissue just underneath the tight junctions). Interestingly, zonulin release can be stimulated by gluten or by bacteria, which in a words of Dr.Fasano (who is a leading authority when it comes to gluten research) leads to thinking that our bodies can potentially treat gluten like a bacterium. And so if you were wondering why we all don’t fall sick if we eat gluten then think why don’t we all fall sick when we come in contact with bacteria (and we do that all the time/non-stop)? In other words – our bodies do have defence mechanisms in place and capacity to fight off the foes. Not forever though so in case of gluten anyone can potentially come out with gluten intolerance even if they consumed gluten all their life with ‘seemingly’ no problems. It’s all about how many ‘punches’ your immune system can take. And that alone depends on multiple factors ranging from genetic make-up to the type, the amount and the frequency of gluten you consume among other things like environment, diet and exposure to chemicals/toxins/heavy metals etc.
So the leaky gut situation activates immune system, which through the chain of events causes inflammation and in the case of celiac disease villous atrophy, crypt hyperplasia, and increased intraepithelial lymphocytes with symptoms such as bloating, fatty stools, weight loss etc. That’s pretty much a ‘picture’ for Celiac disease. What’s interesting though is that Celiac’s disease may manifest through a number of other symptoms since gluten has an effect on multitude of body systems both through its abilities to bind to opioid receptors, through stimulation of zonulin and inflammatory reaction and immune system activation. In my personal or more like ‘familial’ experience I identified gluten to cause depressive mood, apathy, mood swings and anxiety over a short period of time, which is why I decided to almost completely (in all honestly around 95%) remove gluten from my diet.
Gluten and the opioid effect
As mentioned earlier, part-digested gluten peptides called exorphins can bind to opioid receptors and mimic opioid effect. It’s important to understand though that opioid receptors are widely distributed throughout the body, not only in the gastrointestinal tract. In fact, opioid receptors can be found on cells of immune system, in central nervous system, in midbrain, limbic and cortical structures and elsewhere, which means that opioids (or molecules that can bind to opioid receptors such as exorphins) can have an effect on a wide range physiological functions, including cognitive ones (as mentioned from my personal experience earlier), educed gastrointestinal motility, urinary retention, pruritus, anxiety, memory problems, depression, sedation, constipation, nausea and more. The take away message here is that gluten should not be exclusively viewed to only affect gastrointestinal tract.
Why do we not have the enzyme if we’ve been eating gluten ‘forever’?
I love the paleo trend but to eat the foods our ancestors ate is literally impossible, because over thousands of years not only agriculture practises changed, but the availability of foods and the amounts of toxins are at completely different levels. So, no we haven’t been eating this type of gluten forever and in fact we haven’t been eating gluten that long at all – it is estimated that gluten reached Europe in around Bronze age – we are talking about maximum 10 000 years of total gluten exposure, but not in the amounts and form it is presented today, which is why our body did not manage to get up to speed with the evolution the western diet and lately – culture of pastries and cakes in increasingly larger amounts.
Food for thought or I challenge you!
So I do hope all above made sense (if you still have questions, leave a comment and I’ll do my best to answer), but in case you still unclear as to why gluten is bad for your health, here’s a list of foods that contains gluten and I challenge you to tell me what nutrients I could miss out on if I excluded these foods from my diet or simply: tell me what vitamins and minerals are in these foods that can nourish my body because for all I know – these are nutrient-free foods (for all you who question fibre – you can get more fibre from salted dried peas with more nutrition than in any bread, so no – your best fibre source is in fact veggies, not gluten-full foods). And finally, why in a world of so many delicious alternatives, should you or me choose gluten-rich ‘foods’ like: cupcakes, muffins, all sorts of pastries, pies, cakes, breads, crackers, biscuits…tell me what is in these foods that I can not get in a fruit or vegetable?
A gluten-free life
We are all beautiful and unique human beings, which means we all have different requirements for our optimum health. No one diet and lifestyle plan can fit two different people, so if you feel good on gluten (which is possibly because you are not eating too much of it or you are eating possibly exceptional quality grains) then happy days. Although even if that is the case, here’s a beautiful list of really lovely gluten-free alternatives that I have personally tried and can attest that they do taste great (this post is not sponsored, just in case):
Marks and Spencer Gluten free bread (available only in store)
Kallo Gluten free rice cakes/ buckwheat cakes/corn cakes (just add Gluten free filter)
Bob’s Red Mill Gluten free oat flour (for those Saturday pancakes or perhaps an apple pie)
Organic Amisa Buckwheat flour (great for baking as well)
Sukrin Fat Reduced Gluten Free Organic Coconut flour (act like a sponge for water, fantastic if you need to thicken up your batter – just add a little at a time and watch)
King Soba Pumpkin and Ginger noodles ( I love these instead of pasta, although you could do even better and use courgette as your pasta)