Contributed by Guest Author Janelle Castle, Naturopath, massage therapist, facial therapist and holistic skin care advisor. Currently Janelle works at Amanpuri Resort in Thailand.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a blanket term that refers to the storage proteins contained in common grains like wheat, oats, rye, and barley. More specifically, these proteins are called Gliadin in wheat; Hordein in barley; Secalin in rye and Avenin in oats. The proteins are a natural part of these grains and are what nourishes the plant during germination. Protein makes things grow.
The content of gluten in a grain and the resulting flour when processed is what gives elasticity, shape and texture to breads, cakes, pizza bases and the like. When yeast is incorporated in the making of these doughy substances, the resulting fermentation process produces carbon dioxide bubbles and the sticky network of proteins (glutens) trap the bubbles and help the dough to rise. Gluten is indeed a wonderful thing, at least as far as baking is concerned.
The main food group that contains gluten is the ‘breads and cereals’ section of the food pyramid. However, a very high percentage of packaged and processed foods also contain gluten in varying amounts. Common foods such as pizza, pasta, breads, crackers, pastries, cakes and biscuits, sausages and other processed and sliced meats, soy sauce, salad dressings, gravies, soups, ready-made meals and fast foods, beer, ice creams, sweet and savoury pie fillings…and the list goes on! Gluten can also be hidden in ingredients such as ‘hydrolysed vegetable protein’, ‘textured vegetable protein’, stock cubes or powders and other dried seasonings and flavour enhancers; in processed meats, flavoured potato crisps, spice mixes, flavoured chocolates and sweets. It is often used as filler or to increase the protein content of otherwise low protein foods. This hidden gluten is not always disclosed in the ingredient list of the product; you may be consuming gluten right now and not know it.
What is gluten sensitivity and what are the typical symptoms?
Gluten sensitivity, by definition, is a reaction to gluten that is not a true wheat allergy, nor is it Coeliac Disease.
There are varying levels of severity of gluten sensitivity with Coeliac Disease having the most intense symptoms – an allergic reaction to the protein gliadin found in wheat as well as similar proteins found in other common grains.
Gluten sensitivity, especially if left undiagnosed, creates inflammation which settles in the weakest areas of the individual’s body. For example, if the inflammation develops in the joints, it is referred to as arthritis. If inflammation settles in the colon, a diagnosis of inflammatory bowel disease may be given. Inflammation in the arteries results in high cholesterol levels. Therefore, the issue of gluten sensitivity shouldn’t be taken lightly. Scientists estimate that 99% of the population who are sensitive to gluten are unaware of it.
A large study of 30,000 people with Coeliac Disease, non-Coeliac Disease intestinal inflammation and gluten sensitivity published in the Journal of the American Medical Association suggested the participants with undiagnosed gluten sensitivity had a 35% increased risk of death. This statistic is alarming, especially considering many people do not know what gluten is, what foods it is found in or that it may be a cause or contributing factor to their presenting symptoms. It’s time to push the Oreo’s aside and spread the word on the down-side to gluten consumption.
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity can include gastrointestinal discomfort such as bloating, diarrhoea, flatulence at an abnormal level, constipation, intestinal pain, unexplainable weight gain or weight loss, tooth decay and poor gum health, infertility, miscarriage and irregular menstrual cycle, headaches and migraines, depression, aching joints, irritability, mood swings, frequent nausea and sinus congestion. This is by no means an exhaustive list and the intensity of the symptoms can be low grade over a long period of time or a daily nuisance depending on the individual and amount of gluten ingested.
Due to the ongoing inflammatory response caused by undiagnosed gluten sensitivity, it may be a contributing factor or sole cause of many common disease states such as rheumatoid arthritis, lupus, anaemia, fibromyalgia, thyroid diseases, diabetes, asthma, cancers, neurological problems such as depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, nerve damage, epilepsy, autism, general poor health, failure to thrive or gain weight and ongoing gastrointestinal distress.
Consider how many people around you are taking expensive medication for the above conditions, how fantastic they could feel if they were liberated from these afflictions and how much money they could save on medications by removing all traces of gluten from their diet. By identifying and removing the root cause of a disease, we have the potential to revolutionise an overloaded health care system. Our view changes from a victim mentality to one of empowerment.
Why does gluten cause sensitivity and inflammation in the body?
Historically, gluten proteins in the human diet were only contained in grains, not in a multitude of processed foods as we consume today. So automatically, we consumed a much smaller quantity. The hybridisation of the wheat grain around 50 years ago then changed the face of this grain as we knew it. A great scientific advancement at the time, the alteration improved resistance to diseases and yielded higher crops, which meant more people were fed with less and farmers were happier with their yields and their returns. A brilliant idea all round, for which a Nobel Peace Prize was awarded. But there was a greatly unanticipated down side in altering the components of the staple wheat grain. It silently began to make populations around the world sick. Really sick. The advent of the “funny tummy” began as these foreign molecules were regularly ingested. Doctors were baffled and most kept their uncomfortable symptoms to themselves. It was the same grain after all, but better – right? But the more they ignored their symptoms, or covered them up will pills and carried on, the sicker they became.
Let me explain.
The original Einkorn wheat grain contained only 14 chromosomes which coded for proteins that do not commonly trigger inflammation or allergy responses in the body. The current ‘modern’ hybridised Semi-dwarf wheat grain contains 28 chromosomes and many different types of glutens that the human body is, in evolutionary terms, completely unfamiliar with. We are now ingesting incredibly high amounts of glutens on a daily basis as well as other foreign proteins. Our daily bread is now giving us a daily dose of discomfort and disease…even early death.
How do I know if I am gluten sensitive?
Firstly, it’s very important that you rule out if you have Coeliac Disease – an allergy to glutens. Dr. Alessio Fasano, who is considered a worldwide authority on the topic of gluten, recommends that patients ask their doctor for a blood test for Coeliac Disease as a starting point. If this test returns negative results, he suggests asking for a standard allergy test to wheat. If both of these test results are negative, Dr Fasano recommends going on a gluten-free diet to see if your symptoms disappear. If this relieves the symptoms, Dr Fasano believes this is the best test for gluten sensitivity at this point in time.
What should I do if I am gluten sensitive?
Strictly avoid all gluten-containing products. It takes around 6 months of avoidance for your immune system to re-set itself, so bear this in mind if you’re thinking that avoiding gluten for 1 or 2 weeks will resolve the issue completely.
Become a sleuth in the supermarket. Read labels on everything you pick up before it goes in your basket. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. For example, if you’re buying sausages at the butcher’s, ask if they are gluten-free. If the staff aren’t sure, ask for an ingredients list. Gluten or wheat flour is a common filler in sausages, hamburger patties and most meats coated with a seasoning or marinade. Store owners and shop assistants are usually more than happy to help you search for the information you need.
Try to avoid the trap of buying packaged gluten-free goodies in the shops like biscuits, cakes, breads and crackers. They are often full of starch, sugar, hydrogenated oils, margarine and other health-destroying ingredients. Occasionally they are OK, but don’t make them a staple in your diet!
What are good alternatives to products with gluten?
For a start, focus on what you can eat, rather than what you feel you’re missing out on.
Luckily, there is an abundance of naturally gluten-free foods available. Give supermarkets the cold-shoulder and head to your local markets for fresh fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, shellfish, nuts, seeds, beans, lentils and any gluten free grains you can find e.g. rice (Jasmine, black, red, wild etc.), quinoa, corn, buckwheat, millet, amaranth…what a feast! With all of these naturally gluten free foods available to fill up on, you’ll hardly have room for anything else. Baking can become a whole new science as you experiment with different flours, such as buckwheat, quinoa, coconut and rice flour and become accustomed to their different textures, flavour nuances and the way they perform compared to wheat flour.
Dairy products are largely gluten-free (check all ingredients lists, especially ice cream) but keep in mind that many gluten-sensitive individuals are also dairy sensitive; you want to avoid any other foods which elicit a sensitivity reaction or it will be impossible to resolve the heightened immune and inflammatory reactions that are happening in your body.
To avoid getting stuck for gluten free food to eat while at work, be proactive and prepare some food the night before. Make a shopping list for the week and loosely prepare in your mind some options for breakfast, lunch and dinner and purchase items accordingly. Make larger batches of meals such as hearty soups to re-heat if you come home from work later at night so you don’t get tempted to order in pizza. Take some ingredients to work such as rice cakes, tins of tuna, avocados, tomatoes, a bag of fresh leafy greens and you can put together a quick lunch or snack yourself.
If you need some inspiration for cooking gluten-free, check out these fabulous websites which all have a large gluten-free recipe index:
It is estimated that 99% of the population who are sensitive to gluten are unaware of it. Most suffer in silence and consider their often uncomfortable symptoms to be normal for them. Get it checked out! As researchers have proven, undiagnosed gluten sensitivity greatly reduces the quality and quantity of your life.