how is gluten hurting you?

image courtesy of Medical News Today 

image courtesy of Medical News Today 

I touched on this a little in various posts but haven't really gone into detail about how this site even came to be. So without boring you to tears, I'll just recap a little of what I've gone through to get to this point. 

Let's go all the way back. Romania back. I grew up eating real food....not necessarily by choice but because that's how things were done. I don't recall stepping foot in a grocery store in my entire young life as most super markets were deserted and bare. This was communist Romania after all.

I grew up around Farmers Markets, where I got to taste, see and feel real food, whole food. This made a real impression on me, even though I wouldn't come to appreciate it for years to come. My mother and grandparents were also really good cooks. I suppose you almost have to be if you want to eat. Most of my extended family were also amazing cooks, so no matter where I went, home cooked meals were aplenty with good ingredients sourced from local food sources. So from very early on, I was exposed to cooking from scratch and eating more or less from head to tail. I learned how to cook, pickle and actually be comfortable in the kitchen pretty early on. 

Things shifted some when my family moved to Germany but not entirely as we still ate whole food cooked at home, as the German culture also cooks a lot from scratch. I certainly had access to packaged foods more than I had before, but I was little and my parents still called the shots on the foods we ate. 

Fast forward to my teens, when we arrived in the land of Lucky Charms and free flowing soda. I immediately embraced American food and stuffed my face full of everything sugary I could get my hands on. Even though my mom still cooked, I spent a lot of time hanging out with friends and eating piles of garbage. 

I distinctly recall being 16 when I first began having bouts of crippling stomach pains. This was about a year after I had arrived in the US. I thought this was fairly normal and didn't pay much attention to it as I had other things to worry about, such as being a teenager. My mom did take me to the doctor where I was told nothing was wrong with me and it may be in my head. 

Though in my twenties my eating habits drastically changed, I still always had stomach pains. I went low fat (who didn't?), ate tons of pasta and grains just like the food pyramid told me to do and the pains persisted. 

A decade and two children later, a much cleaner diet, things stayed the same. Visit after visit to doctors, gave me the same answer: "nothing is wrong with you, it's probably IBS". I just thought, okay maybe this is how everyone feels...you just have pain after every meal. 

Things went south for me earlier this year with the pains, bloating, and general awful feeling progressing. It got to the point where I could barely function, could not enjoy my life or my family as I was in pain all the time. I tried my best to fake through it but I was in agony and felt depressed most of the time. After more doctor visits and a trip to the emergency room, which again yielded nothing, I was left on my own. So I decided to dive into the literature and researched and read everything I could get my hands on that may give me some answers. 

I knew dairy may or may not have been a culprit as I was dairy free for 6 months shortly after my daughter was born, due to her having a dairy sensitivity. So I knew that I still had daily pains even while dairy free though I can say that I felt better while not eating dairy but certainly not good enough. One day, I came across an interesting podcast episode with Dr. Alessio Fasano, where everything was pieced together for me. You can check this out here. The missing link for me was gluten. 

What is gluten?

Image courtesy of wiseGEEK

Image courtesy of wiseGEEK

I'm sure you've heard the word gluten and certainly have seen it written on numerous packaged food items. Gluten is the family of proteins which acts like a glue, that's found primarily in wheat. The two proteins making up gluten are glutenin and gliadin. However, gliadin is the one that's responsible for most of the negative effects experienced. Though most people think the same protein is found in barley and rye, these two contain their own specific proteins which can trigger sensitivity similar to gliadin. In barley it is called hordein and in rye, secalin. You also want to watch for spelt, which is a type of wheat - also known as farro, faro, or dinkel. 

So could it be gluten? 

I'm primariy referring to gluten sensitivity in this post, not to be confused with Celiac's disease. And I also want want to state that not everyone is affected by gluten in the same way. My husband has a stomach of steel. He can eat anything, really quickly, and be perfectly fine. If I were to follow suit, I'd be a mess for days. So I want to be careful to note that this is not a recommendation that everyone needs to stop eating gluten. 

With that said, common belief used to be that you either have a gluten intolerance in the form of Celiac's or you don't. We now know that things are not quite so black and white as previously thought. There is a grey area and in this grey area lies non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) "A significant percentage of the general population report problems caused by wheat and/or gluten ingestion, even though they do not have celiac disease (CD) or wheat allergy (WA), because they test negative both for CD-specific serology and histopathology and for immunoglobulin E (IgE)-mediated assays. Most patients report both gastrointestinal and nongastrointestinal symptoms, and all report improvement of symptoms on a gluten-free diet. This clinical condition has been named non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)."

While gluten may be tolerated by some people it can adversely affect others. Having a gluten sensitivity may be really tricky to spot and diagnose since it can manifest in many other areas than just a stomach issues. Even though more often than not, most people who are sensitive to gluten will immediately experience a negative effect after eating gluten. 

The interesting thing about NCGS is that anyone can develop it at any time depending on how permeable the gut lining becomes as a result of years of consuming gluten. Of course there could be other factors at play as well and I will cover leaky gut in another article in more detail. 

Symptoms of gluten sensitivity: 

  • Aggravated IBS Symptoms
  • Bloating and/or gas or inability to pass gas
  • Constipation or diarrhea 
  • Anxiety or depression symptoms or both
  • Bain fog
  • Low energy levels
  • Joint pain
  • Skin imbalance such as rosacea and eczema 
  • Headaches
  • Not absorbing nutrients properly
  • Hormonal imbalance such as hypothyroidism
  • Weight gain or loss
  • Triggers Autoimmune responses such as thyroid disorders, type 1 diabetes, arthritis and others

You're probably wondering how it's possible that gluten could affect so many other areas aside from just the standard enteric issues. Remember, everything is connected to the gut. While health care practitioners on the large scale is still on the fence about NCGS, it is without a doubt something that is treatable by simply eliminating gluten from the diet. There's no big hoopla about it really. If you want to try it for yourself and feel like you may have a sensitivity, eliminate all wheat, barley, rye and spelt from your diet and see how you feel. Try it for even one week and see if you notice a difference. And yes, that includes beer (sorry beer lovers). 

The tricky thing about eliminating gluten is that many do report feeling better from switching to a gluten free diet. However, if the switch involves substituting gluten free bread, pastries, cookies and that sort of thing, other side effects may pop up as those items are filled with preservatives. 

Also look out for hidden triggers that contain or may be contaminated by gluten. I can't possibly cover them all but I'll just name a few that I found to be less well known. 

  • Soy sauce - use coconut Aminos.
  • Oats - look for certified gluten free.
  • Salad dressing - make your own or read the labels.
  • Shampoo - this is a tricky one. Look for more natural sources of shampoo.
  • Vitamins and supplements - read ingredients.
  • Some hot dogs and some deli meats - read the labels.
  • French fries - many restaurants use the same frier used for onion rings and chicken tenders, etc.
  • Gum - some brands contain flour to help them from sticking to the packaging. 
  • Mustard - some contain gluten, again important to read the label. 
  • Canned soups - again read the labels. 
Image courtesy of Medical News Today

Image courtesy of Medical News Today

But if you're thinking; well, gluten seems to be in everything, you're not entirely wrong. It is found in the majority of processed food unless it's clearly written that it is certified gluten free. One way around that is to eat a whole food diet, making food yourself and if that's not an option, educating yourself enough so you don't have to be afraid to live your life. 

Gluten sensitivity remains largely un-diagnosed so it's up to the individual to find out what's right for their bodies. I appreciate a doctor's expertise but remember, doctor's don't know your own unique make up. Don't put your health in anyone's hands completely. Take charge and be your own healthcare advocate. Do your research. Be good to your body and your body will be good to you!