Anybody who follows nutrition in America has heard about the gluten-free trend. With increasing amounts of gluten-free (GF) packaged goods hitting the shelves, and restaurants expanding their menus to include GF options, the market has seen an enormous explosion in the last ten years. But are so many people truly allergic to gluten, or is it all hype?
For those of you unaware as to what gluten even is, it is the tough substance remaining when the flour of wheat is washed away to remove the starch. For my purposes, I will be specifically talking about wheat gluten.
Before we delve too far into the realm of wheat, you should know that many scientific articles are circulating that attempt to pacify the gluten uproar that our country is currently under. This article is one of several that have surfaced online in the last few weeks, debunking the recent statistics that as much as 70% of the American population may now suffer from a gluten sensitivity: http://www.businessinsider.com/gluten-sensitivity-and-study-replication-2014-5
My problem with these research experiments is the following: It takes 18 months or longer to heal your gut once it is damaged from gluten. So a study conducted over a matter of weeks is somewhat irrelevant because a damaged gut will not work properly no matter what you put in it.
Also, equally important is the source of the gluten. How was it grown/processed? Many people who cannot consume bread in America, can have a slice of sourdough in France and feel completely fine because the way we process wheat in our country is a huge part of the problem. (This is another topic for another day.) I am no scientist, but as a nutrition coach, I’d say the results are skewed because of too many variables in the experiments that remain unaddressed.
Your best bet is always to determine what YOUR body says, versus following some trend with the hopes of improving your health.
So, to the point: let me say that people in general are quick to analyze gluten sensitivity/intolerance through the presence primarily of gastrointestinal distress. Certainly this is one of the more obvious symptoms of gluten troubles, but just because you can consume your morning toast without experiencing diarrhea, bloating, gas, and/or constipation, doesn’t necessarily mean that you are home-free to gorge yourself at Olive Garden. The following are common symptoms of a gluten allergy, sensitivity, or intolerance, as borrowed from www.health.usnews.com: (and expanded upon by personal experience)
- Gastrointestinal Effects. These can range from gas and bloating, to extreme abdominal pain to chronic diarrhea/constipation. Because these symptoms show up almost immediately after consumption, they are the easiest to track and attribute to gluten.
- Malabsorption of vitamins. If gluten has damaged your stomach and intestinal walls, the lining can no longer absorb essential nutrients from your food. This can result in inability to lose/gain weight, low iron, and various other deficiencies.
- Skin Rash. This can be an itchy-type rash, or chronic troubles with eczema. Another sign of a wheat allergy/intolerance can be red cheeks or bright red ears. My boss and my son both exhibit these tell-tale signs, so I know exactly when they’ve ingested gluten. Also, gluten-sensitive individuals can be more likely to sunburn easily.
- Migraines. Although headaches can signify an array of medical problems, migraines in combination with any of these other symptoms are very likely linked to a gluten problem.
- Joint Pain. If you struggle with unexplained joint pain, it may be because your body is having an inflammatory response to gluten. Chronic hip, knee, shoulder, and neck pain may be related to gluten consumption.
- Lactose intolerance. Odds are, if you have problem digesting foods that contain lactose (milk and other dairy products) you may have a gluten sensitivity as well. If gluten has damaged the lining of your gut, it makes it difficult for your gut to handle foods that contain lactose.
- Chronic fatigue. As with migraines, fatigue alone is not usually the sole indicator in gluten cases. But if you have this in combination with other symptoms, you may want to consider reducing or elimating gluten from your diet.
- Anxiety/Depression. This one may sound way out there to most of you, but I cannot count the number of clients I have seen who reported that their anxiety/depression issues went away after weaning themselves off gluten. Many of them were even able to reduce and eliminate their depression medications over time with the help of their primary care physician.
- Gallbladder disfunction/extraction. This also is a common link among those with gluten intolerance. If you have suffered from gallstones or had your gallbladder removed in the past, I encourage you to explore the possibility that your body struggles with gluten in some way.
- Infertility. Once again, this in and of itself probably does not signify a gluten allergy. But I have had a handful of clients who struggled to conceive, then became pregnant almost immediately after removing gluten from their diets.
- Fibromyalgia. If your doctor has given you a fibromyalgia diagnosis, I highly encourage you to eliminate gluten. Just like with joint pain, the inflammation from gluten can present itself anywhere in your body. Your body may be having an immune/inflammatory response to gluten that manifests itself this way.
So let’s say that these eleven symptoms are ones that you routinely suffer from. What should you do next? Rush in to your medical doctor to get tested? Maybe. But for many Americans, their gluten sensitivity won’t register on an allergy test. Just because it doesn’t, does not mean that your body isn’t having symptoms related to gluten consumption. The best way to establish how you tolerate gluten is to determine this for yourself. Most nutritionists recommend an elimination diet. This is where you COMPLETELY, 100% eliminate gluten from your diet for a period of 2-3 weeks, then reintroduce it and track your symptoms. If you feel better off gluten than you do on it, you probably fall somewhere on the gluten-sensitive spectrum, even if you’re not full-blown allergic to it.
If you are looking for some resources to help you understand what gluten is and how to cut it out, www.doctoroz.com and www.wheatbelly.com are both websites with information and meal plans assembled by medical professionals. That is a great place to start. My general rule is that if it comes in a bag or a box, and it doesn’t say “gluten-free” on the label, it probably isn’t.
Note: 2-3 weeks off of gluten is NOT enough time to heal your gut from damage it may have sustained while consuming it. Also, gluten can hang out in the body’s tissues for years after you’ve stopped consuming it. So while some of your symptoms may improve, others may remain. In general, however, if you don’t experience worsening of your symptoms within 72 hours to a week of your elimination experiment, you probably don’t suffer from a gluten sensitivity.
So maybe you discover you ARE, in fact, struggling with a gluten problem. You can still have gluten once in a while, right? Maybe yes, maybe no. Dr. Amy Myers on the website www.mindbodygreen.com, presents the alarming statistic that those with a gluten sensitivity who consume gluten even ONE time per month increase their relative death risk by as much as 600%. Whether or not this is true, I am not sure. What I do know is that after eliminating gluten from my personal diet and that of my immediate family, I won’t go back.
So if you’re having a BBQ this weekend, bring on the bacon cheeseburgers! Pass the fruit salad! But you might want to consider skipping the bun. 🙂
Yours in health,