It is estimated that in the U.S. alone a staggering 18 million Americans suffer from the effects of gluten intolerance, also known as gluten sensitivity or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.(1) It has only recently been acknowledged and is still little is understood about it.
If you are suffering from gluten intolerance, you are not alone as there are a growing list of people being diagnosed with illnesses caused by intolerance or sensitivity to a variety of products and basic foods.
What is Gluten Intolerance – and what is the underlying cause?
Gluten is a protein found primarily in the cereals wheat, barley and rye and it is what gives dough it’s elasticity.
When people initially develop gluten intolerance, they initially notice symptoms of gas and other stomach discomfort. If the condition is left untreated, it can become chronic which affects your overall quality of life.
For most people the answer to living with gluten intolerance is simple, do not eat foods which contain gluten. It’s kind of like avoiding foods you are allergic to. That does solve a lot of issues, but there is one question you should ask yourself. Is the intolerance to gluten the action problem, or is it simply a reaction to an underlying condition? Do you have a biological malfunction preventing absorption?
Does Gluten Intolerance Exist? Is it Real or Fake?
There were so many diseases that existed, yet the medical community as a whole didn’t have enough information to justify that it was real. Over the years there were issues like ME (myalgic encephalomyelitis) or CFS (chronic fatigue syndrome) that took over a decade to achieve medical recognition. In terms of gluten sensitivity, many doctors didn’t believe people and thought that they were being hysterical that they would have issues after consuming foods containing gluten. To make matters worse, there were some research reports which seemed to support the stance that gluten intolerance did not exist.
However in 2011 a paper published in The American Journal of Gastroenterology (2) found that gluten caused both gastrointestinal distress, and also fatigue. On the back of that study further research (3) reports that patients are suffering from physical reactions after eating gluten.
It seems that science has finally resolved the issue – gluten intolerance is real.
Gluten and the Digestive System
To understand why some people react badly to foods (not just gluten), we must first have a basic understanding of the digestive system. This is just a very basic understanding, so do not expect it to get super complicated.
Every time you consume food your digestive system kicks off a domino effect of digestive events relating to absorption, detoxification and immune reactions. The digestive tract holds a multitude of elements which enable you to breakdown food into its component parts so all the cells in your body receive the necessary nutrients to keep you in optimal health.
The main elements involved in breaking down your food are:
As long as you have the required amounts of all the elements required to break down food, then your body will do it without issues. If not, then you may have problems with digestion.
Acids and alkalies involve the pH, which stands for the power of hydrogen, of the digestive system. Our body does not have one pH, but there are changes throughout, and also depending on what we eat, what we do. It’s constantly changing and adapting. For example our stomach acid is highly acidic and has a pH of about 2. When you begin to eat the pH changes and gets more alkaline. The eating and swallowing process also triggers the release of some enzymes into the stomach, primarily pepsin, and together with the acid they start digestion.
When the food, which by then what is known as ‘chyme,’ moves into the upper small intestine, the pH changes again into a much more alkaline or non-acidic environment. This is caused by bicarbonate being released by your body. Here your food will also come into contact with trillions of bacteria which work together with many more enzymes and degrade the chyme into particles so small they can be carried through your blood stream.
Enzymes are essential to life. Without them we simply couldn’t process our food. They work in harmony with the acids, alkali and bacteria to break down food into amino acids, fatty acids, cholesterol, simple sugars and nucleic acids which enable us to make DNA.
We now know that the enzymes responsible for degrading gluten are proteases which are sometimes known as proteolytic enzymes. As gluten is a particularly difficult molecule to digest it is essential that those suffering from gluten intolerance have sufficient quantities of protease to ensure optimum digestive function. When looking for a digestive enzyme supplement, those suffering from gluten intolerance should make sure that proteases form part of the ingredient list. Denzpro (4) a digestive enzyme supplement, contains the protease, peptidase DPP-IV which is specific for breaking down, not only gluten, but also casein.
How Does living in the Modern World impact Digestion?
As we increasingly expose our bodies become increasingly to a variety of toxins the elements involved in breaking down food come under increasing pressure to work harder. If any of those elements are lacking then we start to suffer from dysbiosis or an imbalance of mechanisms required for digestive function.
Toxic elements, which can range from emotional stress to chemical exposure, eventually tip these elements off balance and they can no longer work synergistically. Today, not only are foods processed, or even in some cases synthesized within the factory environment, but our agricultural land is chemically treated, seeds are manufactured to be standardized and resistant to disease. Water is chemically treated, and, even in environments which are organic, products can still be subjected to toxins from the air.
These factors and many more conspire to put our digestive system under increasing pressure.
What Illnesses are linked with Gluten Intolerance
Many today suffering gluten intolerance will recognize that they also have either symptoms or a diagnosis which corresponds with other illnesses. Some have fibromyalgia, others IBS. Maybe they are also lactose intolerant or have numerous vitamin deficiencies. Some might have autoimmune conditions, unexplained infertility, migraines, or depression. (5) The list seems endless and continues to grow – however one thing is clear, you are unlikely to suffer from only gluten intolerance. Most people with gluten intolerance have at least one other condition – and most of these conditions can be linked to a malabsorption problem within the gut.
How Do I know if I Have Gluten Intolerance?
Gluten intolerance is generally diagnosed by a process of elimination. Products containing gluten are withdrawn from the diet for at least 2 to 3 weeks and then gradually reintroduced and reactions are monitored. There is no single diagnostic test which will confirm gluten intolerance and the elimination diet is by no means foolproof.
Celiac disease is currently thought to occur as a response to an autoimmune attack. It is important if you suspect you have celiac disease not to eliminate gluten from your diet until you have a diagnosis. The reason being if you test for celiac disease when you eliminate gluten the test becomes invalid. Celiac disease is different from non celiac gluten sensitivity, and so are the tests. It’s best to go to a doctor to get tested.
Testing for celiac disease is first by a blood test, which establishes if you have antibodies and, even in cases where your antibody test is negative this does not rule out celiac disease. If your test is positive or your clinician still suspects celiac disease then a biopsy will be performed. (6) In celiac disease intestinal damage is substantiated and this is another way it can be distinguished from gluten intolerance.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is also normally diagnosed by a process of elimination but this time through routine blood sampling and symptoms. Certain symptoms, such as blood in the stools, insomnia or fever would rule out numerous other illnesses. Blood tests too will rule out thyroid problems or anemia. Performing a gluten elimination diet may indicate if someone does not have gluten intolerance, but since gluten can take months or years to clear the system, this method is, like gluten diagnostics, not foolproof. (7) IBS sufferers also tend to have intolerances to wheat, fruit, and milk in addition to left side pain. (8) However those who are gluten intolerant also report left sided pain which may lead to the conclusion that some diagnosed with IBS are actually gluten intolerant and vice versa.
Some people can also suffer from an allergy to wheat. This means they will get allergic responses, usually within minutes of ingesting wheat products. They will not however react when they ingest other cereals such as rye, barley or oats.
Signs and Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance
There are many more signs and symptoms of gluten intolerance than you might at first believe. In fact some people claim there are over 300. However the most notable ones include (9):
- Stomach ache
- Stomach upset
- Abdominal pain
- Frequent bloating or gas
There are though many other indicators that someone might be gluten intolerant. These include (10):
- Acid reflux
- Chronic constipation
- Migraine or headaches
- Joint pains or aches
- Brain fog
- Depression or anxiety
- Ongoing fatigue and lethargy
- Chronic eczema or acne
Many others suffer less well recognized symptoms and diagnosed illnesses which include(11):
- Neck stiffness
- Temperature dysregulation
- Muscle twitching or spasms
- Left side pain
- Liver issues, disease, elevated liver enzymes
- Leaky gut syndrome
- Joint inflammation
- Kidney Stones
A further symptom commonly reported is that of mucus in the stools. However research indicates that neither celiac disease nor gluten intolerance results in this particular symptom. However people suffering from this symptom should be aware that there is a distinction between mucus in stools and fatty deposits which can look similar. Fatty deposits indicate that the patient lacks specific enzymes, particularly proteases, which break the long chain fatty acids in foods. In short, fatty deposits in stools indicate the patient has a digestive dysfunction. (12)
There are also now strong links to indicate that neurological symptoms, such as muscle twitching or spasms, are also related to gluten intolerance. Although the theory is relatively new it seems that neuro or nerve damage is being taken very seriously by the scientific community. (13)
Diagnosing Gluten Intolerance
Because of the current limitations within the medical profession regarding gluten intolerance many people prefer to self-diagnose by performing an elimination diet. Some however take a more structured approach to diagnosis.
Are Probiotics Good for Gluten Sensitivity?
Probiotics contain good bacteria otherwise known as microflora are essential in breaking down foods you eat. There are over 3lbs of bacteria in your digestive system and it’s important to make sure they are good. The bacteria work in harmony or synergistically with enzymes, acids and alkalies performing essential digestive functions. When the good bacteria decrease in numbers taking probiotics is an excellent way of topping up your microflora and assisting digestive function. Some probiotics however, such as Probacto contain other essential compounds which are comparative to those of kefir. For example Probacto (15) contains not only Bacillus subtilis, Lactobacillus helvecticus, Saccharomyces boulardii, Lactobacillus rhamnosus, Lactobacillus plantarum, Lactococcus lactis and Bifidobacterium but also a digestive yeast cleanse. Although many people are concerned with fungal or yeast infections relating to illnesses such as candida, the yeast in this product is a beneficial yeast which is designed to overwhelm any pathogenic yeasts which result in fungal related illnesses. Unusually it also contains IMO or Isomalto-Oligosaccharide which is a prebiotic. A prebiotic is a natural plant fiber (Chicory root skin for example is a prebiotic fiber) which resists the acids and heat of the digestive system and goes on to support beneficial bacteria in the colon.
Is Kefir a superior probiotic?
Kefir is a traditional drink which is becoming renown for its qualities as a superior probiotic. Where kefir differs from standard probiotics is that it contains many differing and beneficial strains of microflora and yeasts. Although all strains of kefir differ it is also generally accepted that most contain many other nutrients, vitamins and other trace elements which are essential to cellular function. Additionally kefir usually contains inulin, another prebiotic fiber which assists digestion and which is now becoming popular in its own right.
Is Gluten Intolerance Hereditary?
According to the expert, Dr. Alessio Fasano although up to 50% of patients with gluten intolerance have the genetic markers for celiac disease, 40% of Americans also have the marker.(16) It would seem that although you have a 50/50 chance of having this genetic trait, you also have a good chance of it not progressing to clinical illness and manifesting as celiac disease. As a genetic factor in identifying potential toward gluten intolerance it would seem this is as far as science has progressed.
Meal Plans for Gluten Intolerance
If you are gluten intolerant, it’s important to watch what foods you eat. Taking an enzyme supplement such as Denzpro with all meals can assist in mitigating any potential accidents relating to the ingestion of gluten.
It must be noted that there is little substantiated evidence for the beneficial effects of both enzymes and probiotics in respect for gluten intolerance the main reason is that little has been undertaken. However personal reports indicate many find relief from symptoms. People who take digestive supplements can also assist digestive function by avoiding gluten in substantial quantities and plan meals wherever possible.
Some products, such as sour dough bread have already undergone a fermentation process and so the gluten is already broken down by the time it is consumed. Try and find a good source or even make your own which will provide a good alternative to the normal gluten free bread products and gives a little more diversity to your menu.
Other ways you can reduce the symptoms of gluten intolerance or sensitivity is by planning meals as carefully as possible and some meals can be devised without including the dreaded ‘GF’ acronym.
Some example meals:
Banana, strawberry, coconut milk and sesame, flax or sunflower seeds
Vegetable stir fry with seafood.
Fry a small piece of chopped fresh ginger and half a clove of crushed garlic in coconut butter. Add shrimp, mussels, cockles and squid. Just before serving sprinkle with lemon juice. Best eaten with brown rice.
Tofu with Vegetables
After sprinkling tofu with lemon juice and a good quality olive oil cook in the oven for 15 minutes. Meanwhile steam broccoli, green beans and peas together with brown or wild rice.
Being gluten intolerant doesn’t need to be restrictive. Remember to treat the possible underlying cause with enzymes and probiotics and concurrently limit gluten intake to reduce the pressure on your digestive system.
Gluten isn’t however found in oats because the primary protein of that cereal is avenin. This is one reason many people with gluten intolerance can tolerate oats when they cannot ingest other cereals.
Is there a cure for Celiac’s disease?
There is not a cure for Celiac’s disease, and the only treatment is a gluten-free diet.