Doesn’t it look tasty? Nice, fresh bread, which we eat at least once a day, every day. Could it be harming us?
What camp are you in?
You know what I want to say – Gluten. You most likely have heard about gluten and are in one of a few “camps”. You are either (1) started to avoid gluten and are a frequent visitor to the “Free From” aisles in the supermarkets. Perhaps you have already noticed the benefits of doing so; or (2) you have heard that avoiding gluten can cause you more harm than good and decided to stick to your daily food routines as they have always been; or perhaps (3) you’ve heard something about gluten, don’t know what to think about it so you treat it as “one more fad”. As you feel OK (-ish?), you just don’t want to waste your time trying to explore it any further.
Whatever “camp” you are in, let’s have a look at the arguments of all of the sides, as they may be important for you and for the people close to you.
Let’s start from an analogy
Before going to any more “formal” descriptions could I ask you to imagine a train station with automatic ticket gates? (it shouldn’t be difficult – if you are in the UK, you probably wish that you see them slightly less often). The gates are normally closed. If you have a ticket, you can go through. The gate allows any person with a ticket to go through – one person at a time. If the gate is working properly, a group of people can’t go through at the same time. To make sure that everything is in order there is also some station staff employed.
Occasionally however, you might have seen a group of guys, who after a stag night are trying to get back home, but they have chained their legs together and now they are drunk and can’t find the key to release themselves from the chain. They are trying to catch a train, but as they are chained, they have to get through the gate chained together. Somewhat drunk, they are in the “right mood” to force open the gate and get to the station. If the gate is robust, they will force it open, but the gate will swing back and close, so the next person will need to use a ticket to get through the gate and again (s)he will only be able to do this individually (not as part of a group).
Now imagine that the same group of drunken mates is doing it again and again and are forcing open the same gate regularly. No matter how robust the gate is – how long will it take do you think before the gate breaks down and stays open all of the time? Once the gate is broken, anybody can come through this gate – individually or in groups, with or without tickets. If a guard sees the group of drunken guys damaging a gate he will try to react. Maybe he will call the police. Certainly after the group has forced open the gate the first time, the guard will be very vigilant when he sees the same group again.
So let’s get back to gluten. How is the analogy relevant to gluten?
Let’s view gluten as the mates chained together. The gates in the story symbolize our gut (which for the purpose of this explanation can be visualized as a “wall” with a number of automatic gates). The fact that the mates are chained and can’t unchain themselves symbolizes the fact that no human has enzymes to digest gluten (2). Yes, you’ve read it right – no human has the enzymes to digest gluten. However, similar to the mates chained together, gluten (in wheat, rye and barley) contains a molecule that has the power to “open” the gate in our gut (called tight junction).
Just like the group of mates should not be at the station without tickets and their forcing open the gate alerts guards, similarly our body treats this large molecule of gluten as an “invader” (a macroorganism) that should not be there. Our body deploys mechanisms to protect us in a similar way as if we were attacked by an infection.
So what does it mean? Shall we conclude that we all should be gluten free?
Well, not so fast. We “fight” gluten all the time, but we also fight infections frequently. Just like with the gate – if your gut is “robust”, the tight junction (the gate in the story) will open and close in a very short time. The problem starts when the gate opens up and remains open .
So the answer to go gluten free or not depends on the state of YOUR “gate”, how have you maintained it to date and how you want to maintain it going forward? (Please, don’t conclude at this point “oh, my gate is fine, I will continue eating gluten”. This would be “too fast” as well).
If you are like most of us, you are very likely to force open the gate every day, a few times a day (don’t we have bread or cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and some bread with dinner?. ..Not to mention croissants or pastries for “in between”? ). You may want to reconsider how often you want to force your gate open.
What may the risk be?
We are under a number of stressors – environmental, physical and emotional (pollution, chemicals, lack of sleep, emotional stress, you name it). Some of these stressors we can control, others we can’t. Our genetic makeup also plays a role. Our genes may be very good, but may also have some “weak links”. We don’t have control over our genetics, although we may influence how our genes express themselves. (More about that in our future blogs).
We have therefore a limited number of factors that we can influence (positively or negatively depending on our lifestyle choices). This means that just like the drunken mates can make a mess at the station once they break the gate, the same may happen in our body if we are continuously “pulling” on our weakest link. Just like the drunken guys made the staff at the station react, the same may happen to your immune system, which now gets involved and is trying to fight the “invader”. This fight may cause collateral damage in your body – an inflammation – and lead to a compromised immune system. (please read more in our blog, Do you know if you are ”confusing” your immune system? Do you have any “unexplained” symptoms?)
If you have gluten sensitivity you may have no symptoms at all (at least at the “initial stages”). (3) It is best therefore to simply check if you are sensitive. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is very common worldwide. (5). Higher proportions of people with non-celiac wheat sensitivity develop autoimmune disorder (6). This is the situation when your immune system that is supposed to protect you starts attacking you instead. The powerful “weapons” that are there to protect you are now turned to attack you. (what diseases are associated with this? please see our blog for further discussion)
If you are now wondering how to check if you have gluten sensitivity and leaky gut [more “technical” name – intestinal permeability], just stay with us, as we will be discussing this soon in our blogs. (Please sign up to our newsletter to make sure that you don’t miss the information).
So what about the arguments of the “other side”? What do they mean by saying that “going gluten free may cause more harm than good”?
For a start, we should say that the fact that a product does not contain gluten does not mean immediately that it is good for you. Very often the amount of sugar added to various gluten-free products (also to bread) is much higher than in the equivalent products containing gluten.
Important as it is, this however does not seem to be the key issue in the argument. What appears to be “overlooked in the literature is the extent to which wheat contributes to prebiotic stimulation” (3). This simply means the promotion of growth of beneficial microorganisms in the gut (4). Wheat and barley together provide about 81% of fiber in a western diet. (5). The diet on average does not include enough fiber (6) (7) Eliminating wheat, rye and barley from our diet would significantly reduce this already poor intake of fiber and “could produce adverse changes in the microbiota”(8). Simply speaking the already mentioned “beneficial microorganisms in our gut” may not have “the right type of food” to want to live in our guts and more unfriendly guys may “move in” creating a stronger inflammatory environment.
So who is right?
Both “camps” have very important arguments.
Don’t try to guess – find out if you have gluten sensitivity. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is very common worldwide. (5). If you are gluten sensitive it is important to eliminate gluten from your diet. Remember, you may have no symptoms, or you could have mild symptoms that you would never associate with gluten – for example you may have problem with balance and get seasick easily. Would you ever think that this has anything to do with gluten?
When you become gluten free, however, don’t forget to add fiber to your diet to compensate for the elimination of wheat, rye and barley.
I know, this is already a lot to take in. So I will be brief with talking about dairy. So what is this story about milk and how does milk fit in to this discussion?
Remember the drunken mates in our story? There were six of them chained together. The guard at the station does not remember them all, but he has a very good recollection of three of them. Next time, if the group changes and includes new mates that weren’t there earlier, it will not matter. As long as the guard sees the same three or more mates that he remembers, he may be alarmed and react to keep the station in order.
The same happens in your body. If your body reacts to the protein of gluten, it may also react to a protein that “looks similar” to gluten (for example milk). This mechanism is called molecular mimicry (11). What it means is that not only your immune system may start reacting to a protein in food that “looks similar to gluten” – for example to dairy. It also means that it may start attacking a tissue in your body, which “looks similar”. To give an example – gliadin (the more technical term for gluten) looks similar to brain tissue responsible for balance (cerebellum). I also invite you to read more about immune system reactions in our blog Do you know if you are ”confusing” your immune system? Do you have any “unexplained” symptoms?
How much do you want to challenge the robustness of YOUR gates?
If you would like to check how much better you may feel without gluten, we will be talking in more detail how to do it. We will also include more information about fiber. Stay tuned. Please sign up to our newsletter and join us on Facebook