Why Gluten is Bad: The Plain English Answer

Homemade bread on dark table.

At a Glance

  • For a celiac patient gluten can be deadly: it literally causes the body to attack itself when consumed. The only known treatment of celiac disease is cutting all gluten from the diet.
  • Some doctors argue that the current craze of gluten free diets may do more harm than good when followed on a whim by people not suffering from celiac disease or gluten intolerance.
  • However, a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine listed 55 diseases that could be caused or made worse by gluten. (source)

The last few years have seen gluten become a popular buzzword in health and nutrition circles. Hardly a week goes by without yet another celebrity coming out as gluten free or promoting a gluten free diet. Supermarket shelves are overflowing with various gluten free products and many restaurants now offer information about gluten content on their menus.

For somebody diagnosed with celiac disease, the decision to go gluten free is not a matter of choice, but a necessity. For many others it may seem like they are just following the latest health trend, but they may be touching on something bigger. Eliminating gluten from your diet could be one of the best health decisions you ever make.

What Is Gluten?

As a quick refresher, gluten is the name given to a group of proteins found in grains like wheat, rye or barley. Wheat is the most common source of gluten with almost 80 percent of wheat’s composition being the two gluten protein peptides, gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin is the peptide that causes the problems for people when consumed.

Flour made from gluten containing grains makes a sticky, pliable mixture when added to water. It’s what gives dough its elasticity and helps bread to rise when baked. Gluten can also add texture and flavor to foods and sauces.

So far so good, that doesn’t sound too bad! So why does gluten get such bad press? Why are so many people convinced that by cutting gluten from their diet they can improve their health?

How Gluten Can Make You Ill?

When somebody suffers from celiac disease, the body’s immune system attacks gluten as if it were a trespasser. In addition to attacking the gluten, the immune system also attacks the gut, which reduces the body’s ability to absorb important vitamins, proteins, sugars and other key nutrients. Long term effects include intestinal cancer and diabetes. (source)

Far more controversially, many people claim to suffer from a condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Although having similar symptoms to celiac disease, gluten sensitivity doesn’t internally attack the body’s organs. Many researchers argue that this could be due to something other than gluten as following a gluten free diet may cut out other nutrients from wheat or foods which were the true problem. (source)

It’s not just celiac patients who need to worry about gluten; research has found a wide range of conditions linked to its consumption. What most of us thought of as an innocent, even beneficial protein has now been linked to fatigue, osteoporosis and irritable bowel syndrome to name but a few issues. Gluten can cause inflammation with effects felt throughout the entire body, affecting your brain as well as the digestive tract or joints.

Inflammation and Digestive Issues Caused by Gluten

Woman with stomach ache at home, demonstrating one of the reasons why gluten is bad.

Many of us suffer daily with digestive problems, sometimes referred to as “leaky gut’ syndrome. Modern lifestyles and diets can kill off beneficial gut bacteria and allow harmful bacteria to grow. When the bad bacteria is out of balance with healthy gut bacteria it can lead to many problems including already mentioned autoimmune diseases like celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue. (source)

Many researchers have pointed to gluten as one of the major culprits of this unwanted change of balance in bacteria. Gluten can have a weakening effect on the barrier of the intestine, allowing many unwanted substances to “leak” into the bloodstream. Recent studies have shown gluten to cause inflammation of the intestine and a degenerated intestinal lining in both celiac and non-celiac patients. (source)

Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) is the most common gastrointestinal disorder in the US with recent figures suggesting it affects anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of the population. (source) While previously the cause was unknown, evidence now points to IBS either being caused or exaggerated by gluten. Following a gluten free diet has been shown to alter the bowel barrier function and reverse the IBS condition in many patients. (source)

Gluten is Often Linked With Brain Function and Disorders

The inflammation that gluten causes can also have negative effects on your brain. Many neurological conditions have been traced back to gluten consumption. Scientists have studied the link between mental health and the consumption of wheat for over 50 years. Following a gluten free diet has lead to improvements in schizophrenic patients and may explain the rarity of the condition in remote places like the Pacific Islands where the diet has much less gluten and grain is rare. (source)

Cutting out gluten can also help reduce the symptoms of autism, epilepsy and depression. Many people report feeling better after switching to a gluten free diet. Although gluten does not contribute to an increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, gluten can cause lower levels of serotonin, the body’s feel good hormone, which often leads to depression and anger. (source)

A gluten free diet is a popular practice that many parents are now trying to help with children’s Autism symptoms. Following a strict gluten free diet has demonstrated significant improvements in social behavior and physiological symptoms in autistic children. Studies have also shown that children with autism have an enhanced reaction to gluten. (source)

If you are suffering from any neurological problems and the doctor cannot pinpoint the cause, then trying a switch to a gluten-free diet may make sense.

Gluten Can Increase Your Vulnerability to Other Non-Celiac Autoimmune Diseases

Research into gluten and celiac disease has also shown gluten can be linked to many other autoimmune diseases. These include autoimmune thyroid disorders, type 1 diabetes, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune liver disease Multiple sclerosis and various others. (source)

Wheat gluten can be a major cause of type 1 diabetes, often called juvenile diabetes. Viruses and wheat gluten can act together as a disease trigger. A case study of a six year old boy showed a gluten free diet prolonged remission in type 1 diabetes without the need for insulin treatment. (source) Breastfeeding has also been shown to reduce the rate of type 1 diabetes in children. Many baby formulas or food contain wheat gluten and breastfeeding delays the introduction of gluten to a baby.

The most common cases of gluten-related skin disorders are attributed to celiac disease, but are not exclusively limited to sufferers. (source) Dermatitis herpetiformis can show up as an itchy red rash with raised blisters very similar to eczema. Although not as dramatic as the throwing up, diarrhea or bloating of other gluten side effects, it may be worth trying to cut out gluten for a couple of weeks to see how your body reacts.

Gluten Can Be Addictive

There are many people who believe wheat, or gluten, may be addictive. We’re not talking about how addictive that a thick crust pizza is (double pepperoni and jalapeno please!) or that freshly baked stick of french bread. Instead, we are referring to a physical addiction or dependence like many stimulants or better known addictive substances like caffeine or alcohol.

Although more research needs to be performed, at a very basic level the peptides that gluten is broken down to can activate opioid receptors that may cause addictions. These small proteins are called exorphins and are not normally formed in the human body. With a decreased barrier in the intestines, these exorphins can leak into the bloodstream causing addiction when they reach the brain. (source) Gluten exorphins have been found in the blood of celiac patients.

In food addiction groups wheat is often found to be one of the most addictive foods there is, right after nature’s own sweetness, sugar. It is still early days to decide whether this is simply a craving or the body’s physical dependence, with mainly animal studies actually showing opioid-like peptides from gluten actually reaching the brain. If you feel you are getting hooked on high gluten foods, cutting down may not be the worst idea.

If Gluten Is so Bad, Why Do Some Doctors Advise Caution with Gluten Free Diets?A slice of pizza on white plate with a small bowl of basil and cutlery next to it on wooden table.

So far we have painted gluten in a pretty bad light, blaming it for everything from schizophrenia to IBS. However whole grains have B vitamins, iron and fiber which in a healthy balanced diet may reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes type 2. One team of scientists from Harvard suggested that a gluten-free diet could “do more harm than good” for people without celiac disease. (source)

Following a gluten-free diet can be a demanding task and means more than just giving up traditional breads, cereals, pastas and pizzas. Gluten lurks everywhere, it can be found in many other products including frozen vegetables, sauces, gravies, processed meats and many vitamin or mineral supplements. Fortified breads and cereals have become a major source of B vitamins in the US. Insufficient B vitamins can be a problem for anybody but in particular pregnant women who need vitamin B9, or folic acid to prevent birth defects.

Research has shown that a group of carbohydrates called Fodmaps may be the cause of many symptoms previously attributed to gluten. Fodmaps, including fructan, are implicated in irritating the gut, causing diarrhea, flatulence and bloating. Wheat contains Fodmaps but so do many other foods including garlic, artichokes, yogurt and fruits. Like gluten, Fodmaps are fine for most people but people with IBS don’t absorb them too well – one study showed a 70 reduction in symptoms of IBS when following a low Fodmap diet. (source)

The Argument for Switching to a Gluten Free Lifestyle

Like most lifestyle changes, further advice should be sought before making any big decisions. If you think you have any of the conditions detailed above which may be aggravated by gluten then speaking to your physician will help you decide whether to go gluten free or not.

The majority of us have been eating gluten regularly for as long as we can remember. Sometimes we may not realize the damage it can do because we have become accustomed to the effects and consider them “normal”. Those joint pains, feelings of depression or fatigue and general pains or bloating may in fact be due to gluten.

None of the essential vitamins and minerals found in wheat or grains are unique, they can be found in many other foods too. It is thought that today’s wheat contains more gluten and fewer vitamins than the grains past generations enjoyed. In addition, supplements are available which contain no gluten but will enable you to get those all important B vitamins; fiber too can be found in a multitude of other natural foods.

To Be or Not To Be Gluten Free, That is the Question!

Gluten definitely can be bad, but as with most things in life, moderation is key.

For the majority of us, our bodies can tolerate gluten with few negative effects. Simply cutting gluten from your diet will not make you immediately shed those pounds; in fact many gluten-free alternatives can be loaded with extra carbs or sugars to compensate. Plus recent studies have shown going gluten-free can be an expensive habit with most products costing on average 242 percent more than traditional gluten containing foods. (source)

On the other hand, the only way to know for sure if gluten is a bad fit for you is to try eliminating it from your diet for a month or so and pay attention to the effects. You could gradually reintroduce it but if you have had no negative side effects then why bother? Many people follow a perfectly healthy and happy gluten free lifestyle. The harmful effects of gluten can far outweigh the few benefits it offers.

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