Toxins are substances that damage tissue or are capable of causing disease when they enter the body. Our bodies have a built-in detoxification system which processes and excretes small amounts of toxins that we are exposed to.
As I talked about in my article regarding Omega 6:3 Ratio, we live very different lives now than we did 10,000 years ago, and that our bodies cannot adapt quickly enough to the changes we have made in our diet and lifestyle.
Today, we are exposed to a huge range of toxins in much higher volumes than earlier humans, and our detox system is not always up to the mammoth task it faces in today’s environment.
Survival Of The Fittest
Humans and animals have a natural instinct to survive and reproduce, and plants are no different. Only, plants are unable to fight or run away from their predators, so they have developed other ways of defending themselves.
Some of the ways they have evolved to deal with this problem is to produce toxins that damage the lining of the gut, inhibit digestion and absorption of essential nutrients, and effectively make their minerals unavailable to our body.
One of the toxins I’m talking about is, you guessed it – GLUTEN.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a group of proteins made up of the peptides gliadin and glutenin, and are present in many grains such as wheat, rye, spelt, semolina, kamut and barley. In barley, wheat and rye, gluten makes up around 80% of the protein contained in these grains.
Although oats don’t naturally contain gluten, pretty much all oats which are farmed the conventional way are cross-contaminated in processing and storage so it’s safe to assume that oats are generally not gluten-free.
Gluten is not found in quinoa, millet, corn or rice.
It’s also worth noting that, although quinoa and corn are not technically classed as grains, they do contain proteins similar to grains which is why I mentioned them above.
The word “gluten” comes from the latin word for glue. Gluten is a sticky protein that manufacturers love to throw into a whole range of foods and products to act as a binder or filler. An example of its use in this way is to think about the stickiness of dough and how it ends up becoming fluffy “airy” bread.
Other common places that gluten can be found is in reduced-fat products due to its ability to gel the ingredients together, and in fast foods, ready-made meals and frozen dinners to extend the shelf-life of these products.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease specifically associated with gluten, characterised by an inflammatory response to gluten and damage to the tissue in the small intestine. This permanent intolerance of gluten affects 1% of people in the UK and US, and the numbers have risen dramatically over the last half-centruy (400%) due to the increased over-exposure of gluten and the altered nature of gluten itself over years of production.
Symptoms include abdominal pain, fatigue, joint pain, headaches, poor concentration, malnutrition, acid reflux, bloating, constipation, diarrhea and gas.
Many people who have celiac disease may live with symptoms for years before getting a correct diagnosis, while others may go undiagnosed. In fact, for every diagnosed case of celiac disease, 6.4 cases go undiagnosed. These “silent” forms of celiac disease, however, are far from harmless, and are associated with a four-fold increase of death from all causes.
When people with celiac disease consume gluten, it triggers their body to attack the cells of the small intestine and causes a blunting of the microvilli.
The microvilli are long, thin projections growing out of the mucosal walls of the epithilium which pull nutrients towards the epithelial wall to be digested. Eating gluten can cause serious infection and atrophy of these microvilli in people with celiac disease, and without a healthy growth of microvilli we’re unable to absorb the nutrients we are consuming which may lead to malnutrition and sub-optimal sporting performance.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
A considerably higher proportion (around 30% of people) suffer from another adverse reaction to gluten known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Symptoms include abdominal pain, bloating, memory problems, headache, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, dermatitis, depression, anemia, and numbness and tingling in the arms and legs.
NCGS is probably best defined as a reaction (not allergic or autoimmune) which is resolved once gluten is removed from the diet, and after celiac disease and gluten allergy have been ruled out. However, there is no definitive clinical test for it.
Dr. Perlmutter, author of Brain Maker, is one of the many functional medicine practitioners who, when patients are suffering from headaches, memory problems, depression, anxiety, migranes, autism, multiple-sclorosis, amyotrophic laterals sclerosis (ALS), or neurological symptoms with no definitive label, prescribes a total elimination of gluten from their diets.
“…I’m not saying that gluten is specifically playing a causal role in diseases like ALS, but when we see scientific data demonstrating profound gut permeability in this disorder, it makes sense to do everything you can to reduce this process. And eliminating gluten is an important first step.” – Dr. Perlmutter
Gluten And Leaky Gut
Even people who are not clinically sensitive to gluten (they test negative and don’t appear to have issues digesting the protein) can suffer problems.
Also, not all patients symptoms are as obvious as others, and could be experiencing a silent attack elsewhere on the body such as their nervous system. These attacks cause the immune system to send out inflammatory chemicals to try to neatralise threat, and in doing so, damages tissues and leaves the gut compromised, resulting in leaky gut.
You may be doing everything in your power to support your immune system (eating healthily, reducing stress-load etc), but eating gluten could be undoing all your hard work and putting you at risk to serious health issues.
A healthy, non-leaky (impermeable) intestine receives partially digested food from your stomach and absorbs microscopic amounts of nutrients. Those nutrients pass through the lining of the intestinal wall and eventually enter the bloodstream, providing your body with nourishment.
For this to work as it should, the intestinal walls need “tight junctions” – epithelial cells which fit together so tightly that only microscopic nutrients can pass through.
However, gluten triggers the production on zonulin – a biochemical that opens up or “loosens” the tight junctions of your intestinal wall.
During optimal health, these junctions tighten up again, maintain intestinal health, and your digestive system continues in tact.
But when you are continually exposed to gluten in the form of food ingredients and any personal care products which may contain it, the zonulin keeps coming and your tight junctions holding your cell wall remain open, causing you to develop leaky gut.
So, instead of a tight wall, you now have a leaky barrier which allows partially digested food to leak through and enter your system. When your immune system detects the partially digested food, it identifies it as a toxic intruder and mounts an attack. Your immune system is now on high-alert and starts producing anti-gluten anti-bodies, and puts you in a constant state of low-grade inflammation.
Many scientists also believe that damage to the villi and microvilli can occur in individuals with leaky gut, as well as celiac disease sufferers.
A permeable or “leaky” gut puts you at higher risk of other food sensitivities too. So you now have an immune system which reacts negatively to otherwise healthy foods, and an intestine which is inefficient at absorbing nutrients.
Dr. Alessio Fasano of Harvard University conducted research and concluded that exposure to gliadin protein in particular increases gut permeability in all of us, and that every human has a degree of sensitivity to gluten. He also believes that, in order to develop an autoimmune condition, you must have leaky gut. Therefore, ignoring a leaky gut puts you at risk for developing autoimmunity.
Indeed, a 2008 ex vivo study also concluded that gliadin induced an increase in intestinal permeability due to zonulin release.
Not only is chronic inflammation responsible for weight-gain, it is also the underlying cause of every disease.
Testing for celiac disease can be done by your GP via blood tests.
Testing for NCGS is a little different, with most experts recommending a “gluten challenge” whereby the individual removes gluten from their diet for a period of at least 30 days before adding it back in.
If the symptoms disappeared during the 30 day period and then returned when gluten was reintroduced then a diagnosis of NGCS can be made.
Which Common Foods Contain Gluten?
Gluten is everywhere It’s added to a huge range of foods – and the food manufacturers are not always required by law to state whether or not a product contains gluten. Here are some of the foods which contain gluten in the form of wheat, barley or rye, and should be avoided;
You can assume that gluten is present in every type of store-bought baked good and processed food.
Some not-so-obvious food sources which may contain gluten are in things like alcohol, instant mashed potato, stock cubes, ketchup and many other sauces.
Reading the ingredients list on food items is crucial. Additives and preservatives consistently contain gluten;
- Baking powder
- Citric acid
- Glucose syrup
- Food starch
But it doesn’t stop there. Gluten can also be found in health and beauty products such as toothpaste, shampoo, conditioner, moisturisers and lotions.
We know that gluten can be a seriously harmful substance, and actually, there is no need for gluten in the human diet. Grains that contain gluten have a low nutrient-density, and the nutrients they do contain have a low bioavailability.
For this reason, I recommend that everyone completely eliminate gluten from their diets for 30 days and assess any symptoms which may return when gluten is reintroduced. It’s quite possible that you have symptoms that you don’t even recognise as “symptoms”, things you have learned to live with and thought they were just something you had to put up with.
Even if you have no symptoms when including gluten in your diet, I still recommend limiting its consumption to a couple of times a week due to its potential to cause harm, and the effect it has on the intestinal wall which could lead to an intolerance further down the line.
Junger, Alejandro. Clean Gut. Print.
Kellman, Raphael. The Microbiome Diet. Print.
Kresser, Chris. The Paleo Cure. Print.
Myers, Amy. The Autoimmune Solution. Print.
Perlmutter, David, and Kristin Loberg. Brain Maker. Print.
Sonnenburg, Justin, and Erica Sonnenburg. The Good Gut. Print.
Wahls, Terry L, and Eve Adamson. The Wahls Protocol. Print.Follow MuayThaiScholar