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Gluten sensitivity – fact or fiction?

Why are more people now reacting to gluten, a substance found in many foods? Could gluten be affecting you?

Gluten, found in many staple foods, is a substance that gives elasticity to dough. Until recently, a strict gluten free diet was only of interest to people with celiac disease – an autoimmune disease in which proteins from grains (such as wheat, rye and barley) damage the small intestine. However, more people are now finding that they feel better on a gluten free diet. So, is this a psychological ‘placebo effect’, or do people actually benefit physically from a gluten free diet?

Research has now confirmed that gluten sensitivity does exist. Some experts say that gluten sensitivity is much more common than celiac disease. The difference between celiac and gluten sensitivity is that in celiac disease the intestine is damaged, but in gluten sensitivity, it is not. The symptoms for both are similar; a wide range of them relate to the stomach and the intestine (including stomach aches and pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, IBS, etc.) However, gluten sensitivity is a ‘clinical chameleon’, and the symptoms can affect any organ or tissue in your body, and also be very unspecific including fatigue, anaemia, tingling in hand and feet, muscular and joint pains. Most symptoms are common to both gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, so it is important to get tested for celiac before starting a gluten free diet. NHS GPs can organise a test for celiac disease, which will not show if you are gluten sensitive. Many private practitioners, including Nutritional Therapists can access new tests which will now show up both celiac disease, and gluten sensitivity.

Food intolerance is increasing, and the trend is more marked in developed countries. Why are more people now reacting to gluten, when we have been eating grains for 10,000 years? There are several reasons. First of all, to make those lovely fluffy white breads, modern grain has been cultivated so that it contains much more gluten than it did in the past. Secondly, our diets have changed significantly in the past few decades. We now eat gluten in most meals, unlike in the past. Wheat flour is now used in a vast range of modern, mass-produced ‘ready-made’ meals and sauces, (even your mustard can have it). So we are consuming far greater quantities of gluten, more frequently, than our ancestors did.

When our bodies digest gluten, the lining of the intestine is temporarily damaged. This makes it permeable to gluten proteins (hence ‘leaky gut’), which is the mechanism behind both gluten sensitivity and celiac disease. For most people this inflammation is healed relatively quickly after eating but for some it takes much longer. Other aggravating factors include modern additions from the food chain, including pesticides and GMO foods, which have been linked to ‘leaky gut’. To ensure there are no pesticide residues or genetically modified substances (including in your ‘gluten free’ food), which may affect your gut health, choose organic food.

So what to do if you feel you suffer from symptoms that may be caused by gluten? First of all get tested for celiac disease. Then you can try going gluten free for a minimum of 4 weeks, and re-introduce gluten to see the difference in how you feel. Take good care of your general gut health, as the gut is the basis for your overall health. Feed the good bacteria in your intestine by eating plenty of organic vegetables and fruit every day. Also, introduce fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and probiotic yogurts. Avoid damaging your intestinal lining with unnecessary antibiotics, drugs and alcohol.

 

First published in Personal Trainer Magazine (07/2015)