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Gluten: Its Potential Dangers and Serious ConsequencesSince the dawn of the food pyramid, there has been one category that has continuously been considered the foundation of a nutritious diet: grains. Grains, which include breads, pastas, and cereals, are considered one of the healthiest ways to get many essential nutrients, such as fiber, iron, vitamin B. They have also been lauded for their ability to provide the body with complex carbohydrates, one of the building blocks of energy. Yet over the past fifteen years, the true nature of grains has been questioned by many leading research facilities due to one simple factor: gluten.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, oats, rye, and spelt, some of the most commonly consumed grains in the Western World. However, recent research suggests it might be behind some of the most serious health conditions of our day, such as autism, Type 1 Diabetes, and autoimmune thyroid disease.
How can this one protein wreak so much havoc on the body? What is the real story, is gluten good or bad for you? Should grains remain the cornerstone of a healthy diet, or does a new food pyramid need to be constructed?
These are the questions this comprehensive guide will strive to answer. There is no doubt that every day, modern science is revealing a new and oftentimes unsavory way in which gluten may not only be affecting our present day lives, but may have also changed the course of human history.
In this document, you will find the following information related to gluten:
Note: Health911 presents the following information for educational purposes only and does not claim it is a replacement for the recommendations of a trained professional. Before you start or stop any diet or include/exclude any supplement from your diet, check with your health care provider.
Physical Properties and Characteristics of Gluten
Gluten is type of long protein that is actually a combination of two other proteins: gliadin and glutenin. It is found in the seeds of wheat, rye, oats, spelt, and barley, and serves to provide the plant embryo nourishment until it can root in the ground and sprout. Due to the nutritional benefit of gluten, it is sometimes added to food in developing countries as a source of protein.
Gluten exhibits many distinctive characteristics, both uncooked and cooked. In uncooked dough, gluten acts as an elastic substance that gives the flour its consistency. During the baking process, gluten acts as a leavening agent. After baking is complete, gluten still displays several specific characteristics, such as creating a “chewy” texture, and being very absorbent, allowing baked products to soak up liquids such as broth or milk. Gluten also binds with starch once the baking process is complete and becomes firm, allowing bread and other baked goods to preserve a specific shape. The firming of gluten over several days after a product is baked has also been cited as a factor that causes products to go stale.
The elasticity of dough (which corresponds directly to the chewiness of the product) is entirely dependent on gluten, and can be altered by binding more gluten proteins together through longer or more vigorous kneading. For example, pizza crust dough, known for its chewy texture, is vigorously kneaded for a longer period of time than most dough used for making white bread.
Shortening, and other fats used in baking, inhibit the ability for gluten particles to bind together and result in generally less chewy and less fluffy baked goods, like pie crusts, cookies, and cakes.
History of Grains and Gluten
Humans have been consuming gluten products for thousands of years. There is evidence that the cultivation of grains began around 9000 BC, and since then, gluten-containing grain products have been a staple of the human diet. Yet gluten-containing grains, such as wheat and oats, have played more than just a dietary role in the lives of humans, they have fundamentally transformed human society.
Before the cultivation of grain, the ancestors of humans practiced hunter-gatherer techniques to find nourishment. They ate what they found on the ground or on the trees (such as vegetables and fruit), and also hunted other animals for their meat. In their groundbreaking 2002 book, Dangerous Grains, James Braly, M.D. and Ron Hoggan, M.A. reported that there is archaeological evidence to suggest human ancestors began hunting other animals around 2.5 million years ago, around the same time the first crude tools were invented. The authors also note that archaeological evidence supports the theory that human ancestors who practiced hunter-gatherer techniques lived considerably long lives even by today’s standards.
The human diet switched to include grains over two millions years later, a substantial dietary shift that many experts believe was the result of a sudden extinction of the larger animal species humans had grown accustomed to hunting. Braly and Hoggan point out that the cultivation of grains provided several benefits to early humans, such as easy storage which allowed the opportunity to stock up for famine or winter months. Furthermore, the introduction of farming grains allowed humans to shift from a nomadic hunter-gather lifestyle to a permanent community-based living situation which meant more substantial protection from the elements, predators, and other humans could be constructed.
Yet Braly and Hoggan suggest that while incorporating grains into the daily diet fundamentally altered the nature of human society, it also permanently shifted the physical evolution of humans. They write, “[with the inclusion of grains in the diet], our ancestors became smaller, their bones became weaker and more diseased, and the size of their brains diminished. Human brain size, based on head circumference, has diminished approximately 11 percent since the advent of agricultural societies.” They also note that pre-grain humans were an average of 5 to 7 inches taller than their grain eating descendents.
Using the effects of Celiac Disease on modern humans as a model, Braly and Hoggan conclude that it was not just the ingesting of any grains that caused the diminishment in physical stature, but grains that contain gluten. Modern children who suffer from Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by the presence of gluten in the body, are physically smaller and more diminished than their peers. The natural progression of their development is stunted by the nutrient deficiencies their disease causes, causing many to stop growing well before late adolescence. Furthermore, adults with Celiac Disease display a marked reduction in bone density.
Could not these same responses affect an entire population, especially when gluten was a totally new element in their diet? Assuming Braly and Hoggan’s theory is correct, can we help but wonder how different the human story would have been had our stature never been compromised?
As humans evolved, so did the methods for farming and refining grains. The cultivation of grains occurred predominately in Southern European and Middle Eastern communities, and from its origins it expanded across the world as one nation conquered another. The Romans brought grains to the communities they conquered across Europe during the height of their power, just as England, France, and Portugal took knowledge of grain cultivation with them as they sailed around the globe during the age of exploration.
By the nineteenth century, the processing of grains had become so inexpensive and efficient that they could be found in some form in virtually every home on the planet. At the start of the twentieth century, governmental support for a grain-heavy diet was solidified with the creation of the food pyramid, a guide that was meant to outline the staples of healthy eating. What needs to be known is that the food pyramid was published by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), the organization that oversees farming and grain cultivation throughout America. To this day, the USDA still publishes the food pyramid and grains remain the foundational dietary element, in spite of myriad changes and alterations to other food categories done over the past century. How can an agency that regulates grain production be fully trusted to produce a non-biased assessment of nutritional needs?Modern wheat, oat, rye, and barley products contain significantly more gluten in them than grain products produced not even two hundred years ago. This coupled with the recommendations from the USDA to consume at least three servings of whole grains daily means that today’s Americans are consuming more gluten than ever.
Gluten's Role in the Human Body
Let’s examine gluten’s role in the body in order to help understand why this increase in gluten consumption is so important.
When an individual consumes a gluten-containing product, such as a piece of wheat bread, the digestion process begins in the mouth. After the first bite, the piece of wheat bread is saturated with saliva which contains enzymes that immediately start to digest the starches and simple sugars in the bread. After you swallow, the bread enters the stomach, where more types of digestive enzymes and stomach acid continue to work the food into its basic components. As the bread pieces move into the small intestine, various elements begin to be absorbed into the bloodstream. It is at this point that sugars and starches are finally digested into the bloodstream.
Gluten is more slowly digested than sugars and starches for several reasons. First, the fiber in the bread will cause the entire piece of bread – or what is left of it by the time it enters the small intestine – to move slowly through the small intestine. Secondly, as a long protein, gluten molecules are relatively large compared to sugars and starches and require more time to break down into its component pieces and be absorbed.
Like sugar and starch, gluten requires specific enzymes to be present in the small intestine to digest it. If these enzymes, including a liver-produced enzyme, are not present, or not present in substantial amounts, the gluten particle remains partially or completely undigested as it moves through the rest of the intestinal tract before it is excreted as waste.
Braly and Hoggan estimate that approximately 80% of the population lacks the enzymes necessary to digest gluten, or lacks them in appropriate enough amounts. And unlike other indigestible proteins, many bodies continue to absorb the huge and poorly processed gluten particle into the bloodstream through damaged and overly permeable areas in the lining of the small intestine. Ironically, this damage and weakness of the membrane is caused by gluten, which has been shown to be able to irritate and destroy the lining of the small intestine in even the healthiest individual.
One theory for the reason why gluten affects the small intestine in a way other proteins do not is that the human body has yet to evolve to properly digest gluten. While humans have been consuming gluten-containing products for over eleven thousand years, evolution often works in denominations of hundreds of thousands or millions. Furthermore, the steady advances in medicine and technology since the time of the Romans have halted the work of natural selection, preventing the strong (the rare individuals who can digest gluten fine) from rooting out the weak (those who are damaged by gluten consumption). Even if the time was right for a digestive evolution, modern humans will never experience its benefits as genetic survival of the fittest is thwarted by science at every turn.
Health Conditions Attributed to Gluten
The escape of gluten into the bloodstream and its effect on the lining of the small intestine has been discovered to be a cause of myriad and serious health conditions. There are written reports of humans experiencing symptoms and adverse effects from eating gluten-containing products since the days of the Roman Empire. Yet what modern science is discovering is that gluten has the ability to not only cause a range of symptoms but also trigger dormant genetic conditions, including a host of autoimmune diseases. By Braly and Hoggan’s estimation, there are over 185 unique conditions caused by the presence of gluten in the body (an annotated list can be found after the resource section at the end of this guide).
Here is a brief overview of some of the conditions where gluten has been identified as a main cause, ordered from least severe to most severe:
Gluten intolerance is physical reaction to the chemical compounds that make up gluten. Unlike a gluten allergy, gluten intolerances are not caused by immune system responses but instead by a variety of issues, ranging from the absence of necessary digestive enzymes to sensitivity to synthetic preservatives. According to Braly and Hoggan, approximately 80% of humans suffer from gluten intolerance. Symptoms typically include abdominal bloating, cramping, diarrhea, excess gas, and constipation.
A gluten allergy is an immune system reaction to chemical compounds that make up gluten. The reaction can range from mild and almost unnoticeable to severe and life threatening. Reactions are triggered when even just a small amount of gluten is ingested. The most common symptoms of a gluten allergy include hives, numbness in the mouth, abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea, stomach cramping, vomiting, and dizziness. Some individuals can experience a serious reaction known as anaphylactic shock, characterized by a drop in blood pressure, constriction of the airways, and loss of consciousness.
In recent research, gluten has been identified as a cause of a variety of autoimmune disorders. An autoimmune condition is a disease that occurs when the immune system mistakes healthy body tissue for a foreign agent and attacks it, causing the destruction of the healthy tissue. The gluten connection has most strongly been linked to Celiac Disease and autoimmune thyroid disease, though research is being reported annually that suggests all other autoimmune conditions may be linked to gluten.
Gluten tricks the body to attack itself through a process called “molecular mimicry.” All proteins are built from the same 20 building blocks, known as amino acids. What causes one protein to be different from another is not necessarily which amino acids it is made of, but in what order they are linked together. When a partially digested gluten particle seeps into the bloodstream, the immune system is immediately alerted to the event based simply on the size of the particle. As it analyzes what the unnaturally large invader of the bloodstream is, the immune system may mistake the amino acid chain of the gluten for a harmful agent particle. When this happens, the immune system will develop an antibody to specifically destroy the gluten, attack and create a memory of the gluten particle in the blood, so if it sees it again it can destroy it quickly and efficiently.
While this beautiful example of the resilience of the body works most of the time to keep us healthy and functioning properly, it can work against us and destroy us from within. Once the immune system has identified gluten particles as invader particles, it will attack the gluten wherever it might be in the bloodstream, including any healthy cell tissue near the gluten particle.
Celiac Disease, one of the fastest growing diagnosed diseases in the Western World, is an autoimmune condition caused when the immune system attacks the areas of the small intestine where gluten is leaking into the bloodstream. The condition is characterized by a host of symptoms including diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, and weight loss. If left untreated for long periods of time, Celiac Disease will also lead to other more serious conditions including nutrient deficiency, osteoporosis, arthritis, infertility, and tooth decay. Approximately 1 in 133 Americans have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, and the number is rising. Click here to read more about Celiac Disease.
Autoimmune thyroid disease, a condition that occurs when the immune system cells mistakenly attack the thyroid gland, has also been strongly attributed to the presence of gluten in the body. Furthermore, there is a strong correlation between the development of autoimmune thyroid disease and Celiac Disease. There are two types of autoimmune thyroid disease, Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Disease. Graves ’ Disease occurs when immune system antibodies attack the TSH receptor cells on the thyroid, stimulating the gland to produce abnormally high levels of hormones and causing the individual to experience symptoms of an overactive thyroid. Symptoms include insomnia, excessive energy, irritability, weight loss, diarrhea, and sensitivity to heat. Click here to read more about Graves’ Disease and hyperthyroidism.
Hashimoto’s Disease occurs when the immune system antibodies attack the entire thyroid gland, causing it to become inflamed and depressing thyroid hormone production. The result is the individual starts to experience symptoms of an underactive thyroid, such as fatigue, depression, weight gain, constipation, and sensitivity to cold. Click here to read more about Hashimoto’s Disease and hypothyroidism.
In addition to the triggering of an autoimmune condition, the development of several major learning and development disorders, such as Autism, has been linked to gluten. Dr. William Eaton suggests that Autism requires two elements in order to manifest: a genetic predisposition and an environmental trigger. The result of a 2009 study he led indicates that gluten in the mother’s diet may serve as that trigger while the fetus is still in the womb.
Further evidence that speaks to the link between Autism and gluten is the recent discovery that placing children with Autism on a gluten-free diet may drastically improve the symptoms of their condition. It has been shown that children with Autism excrete more gluteomorphine particles, a by-product of ingested gluten, in their urine than non-autistic children, leading some researchers to conclude the intestinal walls in autistic children are too permeable. Several studies have been done that test the effects of a gluten-free diet on autistic children, all of which report a significant decrease in autistic symptoms.
Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet
A gluten-free diet was once considered a difficult option only individuals with Celiac Disease would need to utilize, however now it is receiving recognition from across the medical community for its power to alleviate the symptoms of myriad conditions, allergies, and irritations.
Yet due to the excessive consumption of gluten-containing products in the average Western diet, removing the offending protein completely may seem like an overwhelming challenge. To many, a gluten-free diet is counterintuitive to the nutritional health they have been taught all their lives and flies in the face of every good health guideline they are familiar with.
Furthermore, finding food without gluten can be more challenging than expected. Mark Dumas, a 40 year old Celiac Disease patient, reflected on his initial experience trying to avoid gluten: “After I was diagnosed, I went to my pantry and there wasn’t one thing I could eat…everything had a trace of wheat in it – even the vitamins.”
There are many obvious foods which need to be avoided when eating a gluten-free diet: wheat breads, wheat-based pastas, cereal, oatmeal, and crackers. However, gluten is also found in a variety of other foods that might surprise some consumers. They include (but are not limited to):
In 2004, the United States government passed a bill that requires all foods that contain wheat and a variety of other common allergens be clearly labeled. Yet while this feature is a nice quick-check, many people have found they still need to check the ingredients list anyway to be sure no trace amounts of gluten are in a product.
While the list above may seem to include many common diet staples, there are still a host of gluten-free choices and alternatives that can replace if not simulate options that contain gluten. They include (but are not limited to):
In spite of all the restrictions, following a gluten-free diet is less daunting than it seems once a solid knowledge of what to avoid is gained. Dr. Shari Lieberman, a nutritional expert, notes that “There are so many gluten-free products to choose from and health food stores with dedicated gluten-free bakeries – it is so much easier now [than twenty years ago]. And most important, gluten-free food tastes great and you can’t tell the difference. Many health food stores have gluten-free sections and will give a gluten-free tour of the store.”
The benefits for adopting a gluten-free diet are powerful and exciting. Individuals who suffer from specific gluten-related conditions, like Celiac Disease, Autism, or autoimmune thyroid disease, note a marked improvement – and in many cases complete recovery from – their disease.
Furthermore, individuals who are not conscious of suffering from a gluten-related condition report significant benefits to the dietary change. Some of the most common things people note is that they sleep better, experience fewer seasonal allergies, experience more energy and mental alertness, improved mood, lose weight, experience less joint pain, have greater bone density, and have fewer colds and infections.
Though the decision was made long before our lifetime to make gluten-containing products a dietary cornerstone for our species, it is within our power today to correct the error of our ancestors and reclaim the health we know we are capable of enjoying. As more studies address the effects gluten has on the body, the more we can see that gluten is not only unnecessary, but downright dangerous.
From mild abdominal discomfort to life changing developmental issues, gluten has proven itself to be a powerful and negative force on the human body and mind. While we will never know what might have been had gluten never been introduced into our diet, we can and do know that a future with as little of this protein in it as possible is the surest way to reach our potential as a species.
Everyone needs to make it a point to consider the role gluten has played in their own physical and mental health. Are there mysterious aches that never seem to fully go away? A depressed mood or difficulty concentrating that even prescription medication can’t soothe? Irregular bowel movements or persistent headaches that just can’t be fixed through over-the-counter remedies?
The root of the issues could be gluten, one of the most dangerous elements we digest on a daily basis.