What is gluten?
Gluten is the elastic protein in wheat, rye, barley and other grains. It is the reason why your bread is chewy... I like to think of it as the glue that holds your piece of bread together. So, the next question is, how can something that makes such deliciously doughy pizza be so bad for many of us??
How can something that tastes so good be so bad?
Well, first let me state that not all people are sensitive to gluten. For many of us, whole grains are extremely beneficial to our health and should comprise a substantial part of our diet. I emphasize whole grains because the enriched wheat that is in virtually all processed foods is not beneficial and in many ways is actually detrimental to our health, but that's a whole 'nother topic entirely. Unfortunately, research suggests that at least 15% of our population is sensitive to gluten.
So, what is it about gluten that makes it "bad" for some of us? Well, it all starts with our immune systems. Usually our immune systems are our friends and they protect us by making antibodies to foreign things, like bacteria and viruses. Sometimes, however, our bodies get confused and make antibodies to our own cells (autoimmune diseases) and/or foods that we eat (such as gluten). If the lining in our gut walls is not healthy and intact, as the grains break down into smaller and smaller pieces some may get out into our bloodstream before they are fully digested. This is confusing to our immune system and so we often form antibodies to the gluten proteins thinking it is something that needs to be attacked. This attack is what causes inflammation in our bodies every time we consume that gluten, often leading to symptoms such as headaches, joint aches, fatigue, GI distress, irritability and list goes on and on. In addition, this can weaken our immune system so that we tend to get sick more frequently.
What initially causes the inflammation (the "leakiness") of the gut in the first place?
Here are a few possibilities:
*Imbalanced gut flora (not enough of the "good guys")
*Introduction of certain foods too early as a child
*GI infections (i.e. food poisoning, parasites etc.)
*Medications (corticosteroids, Advil etc.)
*High refined carbohydrate diet
and the list goes on....
What are some of the health effects of gluten intolerance?
Again this is a huge topic, but I'll highlight some of the main points:
1) Malabsorption: if our gut isn't healthy we can't absorb important vitamins and nutrients from our foods. This can ultimately lead to serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies resulting in anemia, muscle cramping/weakness, neurological symptoms, depression, fatigue, headaches etc.
2) GI symptoms: bloating, gas, cramping, alternating between diarrhea and constipation.
3) Neurological symptoms: this is often not discussed as much and many times are the only symptoms people experience; anywhere from numbness/tingling to headaches, depression, irritability and anxiety.
4) Autoimmune diseases: as I stated above, gluten sensitivity starts with our immune system. If we continue to eat the foods that our immune system sees as a foreign invader, then we are putting a lot of stress on our immune system, and eventually it may get further confused and start attacking our own cells, which could lead to autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis, MS, lupus etc.
Gluten-free - is it for me? Going "gluten-free" can be a daunting endeavor to say the least; however, it can be extremely rewarding and well worth the effort for most who give it a go. The easiest way to know if eating gluten-free is for you is to totally eliminate gluten containing grains and products from your diet for 3 weeks and then reintroduce it (a good amount of it) and see how you feel immediately after consuming it, an hour after, and even a day or two after. There are also blood tests etc. one can do to find out if gluten is a problem for them, but really are not necessary if you're willing to carefully and fully eliminate it from the diet and just listen to what your body is telling you.
What CAN I eat that is "gluten-free"?
Lots. So much that I will have to save it for another entry... to be continued. In the meantime check out a few of these sites for more info and some gluten-free options:
Trader Joe's has a link to a list of all their gluten-free foods
Living Without, an excellent magazine for those who are gluten-free
Bob's Redmill offers plenty of gluten-free grains
Pamela's has the best gluten-free flour for baking... love it!