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Does Gluten Cause Disease?

It seems like everywhere you look there’s another food package labeled “gluten-free”. Is this the latest food fad or is this really a healthy choice for you?  And what is gluten free, anyhow?  There is a lot of confusion in both the media and the grocery aisle, and as you read on, I hope to shed light on this important topic.

In my new book, The Immune System Recovery Plan, I focus on using food as medicine as one of the 4 steps to treat autoimmune disease, specifically focusing on gluten and answering the question:  What is Celiac disease and how is it different from gluten intolerance?  And can you get sick from gluten even if you don’t have Celiac disease?  The answer? Absolutely.

Celiac disease is a very specific autoimmune illness that is defined by damage to the villi of the small intestines.  The trigger for this damaging immune reaction is gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, spelt, rye and kamut.  The conventional dogma is that if you don’t have this intestinal damage you don’t have a gluten problem.  Wrong!  It turns out that gluten can trigger other immune reactions and symptoms without any damage to the small intestine, thus you can test negative for Celiac, but still be gluten intolerant.  And there is good evidence that gluten is associated with other autoimmune diseases as well, like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis and Graves disease.

In the United States, wheat has been hybridized over the past 50 years so that it no longer is genetically the same as the wheat our ancestors ate. Wheat contains lots of gluten, and these genetic changes have increased the amount of gluten in the wheat we consume. Gluten is very hard for the body to breakdown, and doesn’t always get digested completely. When partially digested gluten particles get into our blood stream, they can trigger an immune reaction causing vague symptoms like brain fog, fatigue, inflammation and achiness in muscles and joints. Some people also have obvious gut symptoms like gas and bloating which are clear signs of gluten intolerance.

How do gluten particles get into your blood stream? First, certain conditions damage the lining of the intestinal tract. For example, antacids, antibiotics, severe prolonged stress, not enough good bacteria, and too much bad bacteria or yeast (a condition called dysbiosis) are all conditions that cause leaky gut syndrome. This means the intestinal lining becomes “leaky” and the gluten protein sneaks into the body, causing an emergency reaction from the immune system.

To make matters worse, the gluten protein “looks” like our tissues, so the immune system can get confused, attacking the body and causing an autoimmune disease.   This is called “molecular mimicry” and is one of the ways you can get sick from gluten.

For this reason, I always recommend that you remove gluten during a detoxification program, for treatment of autoimmune diseases or for treating irritable bowel syndrome or digestive symptoms.  You can do the experiment yourself: remove gluten for three weeks, and then eat it as a test to see if you notice any reaction. Be very mindful when you reintroduce it, paying attention to the appearance of symptoms of any kind. Sometimes you just feel puffy from the inflammation.  These are classic gluten intolerance symptoms, and if you react this way, you should adopt a gluten free lifestyle.

There are many gluten-free products on the market. Be careful to choose breads and crackers that are made from whole grains and that are rich in fiber. Sometimes gluten-free products are made with processed rice flour or potato starch and this makes them high glycemic—increasing your blood sugar in a bad way—so it’s best to avoid these. Some tips:

  • Go to a health food store or a healthy market like Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s to select items.  You can also find good quality gluten-free products online.
  • I love quinoa and buckwheat. You can also get pasta made from these ingredients.  If you opt for rice, be sure to choose brown instead of white.
  • Even if you don’t remain gluten-free, it is good to eat less of it.
  • All of the recipes in my book, The Immune System Recovery Plan, are gluten-free so you can learn to cook other delicious ancient grains like quinoa and millet to add more variety to your diet.