The word gluten describes a small family of proteins naturally produced in wheat and in a few related grains (oats, barley, and rye). These proteins are found in the grain along with starches. During germination of the grain, the starches and gluten provide nutrition to the young plant until it can develop roots and leaves to nourish it. During the kneading process, the gluten allows the dough to keep its structure during rising and provides a chewy, pleasant texture after baking.
All grains are packed with starches and proteins to nourish the young plant during early growth, but the proteins produced in other grains such as rice and corn do not have the unique adhesive properties of wheat, oat, barley, and rye gluten.
Consumer Products Containing Gluten
The most obvious consumer product made with gluten is bread; in order to produce good bread, hard wheat, which has a high gluten content, is necessary; hard wheat is also used to produce pasta. Soft wheat, which has a lower gluten content, is used to produce baked goods such as cakes. Pastries intended to be light and flaky use shortening to disrupt the structure of the gluten and can be made from any type of flour.
However, avoiding gluten isn’t as easy as just not eating baked goods and pasta. For instance, many vegan-meat products contain gluten as their primary ingredient. Gluten is also found in a wide range of food products from soy sauce to ice cream and can thus be rather hard to avoid.
Gluten and Celiac Disease
Gluten first attracted notice outside the baking industry in the 1950’s when it was found to be the cause of celiac disease. Currently, it is well-established that some people respond to the consumption of gluten by their bodies launching an autoimmune attack against their intestines and other organs and tissues. The condition can be successfully treated by following a strict gluten-free diet; consumption of even a tiny amount of gluten can adversely affect the intestine in people with celiac, which is why foods that are completely gluten-free are now clearly labeled as such to protect these individuals, who make up a very small percentage of the population.
Symptoms of celiac disease are variable. The classic presentation with onset during early childhood is actually the least common form. During the classic presentation, a young child suffers from diarrhea, abdominal distention, malabsorption, and failure to thrive and grow normally. The more common presentation is an adult with years of variable symptoms or even just a nonspecific general low level of health; however, left undiagnosed and untreated, the patient suffers from chronic malabsorption of nutrients that can lead to osteoporosis, anemia, and other diseases; an increased risk of intestinal lymphomas; and a higher risk of dying prematurely.
Celiac disease is currently diagnosed through blood tests to look for auto-immune antibodies, genetic testing for genes known to be linked to the disease, and an intestinal biopsy to confirm the diagnosis.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity has been labeled as an intolerance condition rather than an allergy although its exact mechanism is unclear. In non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), the individual suffers from a complex of symptoms that resolve after switching to a gluten-free diet. Individuals with NCGS are often diagnosed as having irritable bowel syndrome and only go on to self-diagnosis as NCGS after a trial of a gluten-free diet resolves their symptoms. Most are never formally tested for celiac disease, and therefore some of the patients self-diagnosed with NCGS may actually have celiac disease.
Symptoms of NCGS include abdominal bloating, pain, cramping, and gas, frequent diarrhea or alternating episodes of diarrhea and constipation, fatigue, headaches, dermatitis, and neurological disorders. Some researchers have suggested that NCGS might not actually be triggered by gluten and may instead be triggered by carbohydrates that are found in the same grains that produce gluten. Other investigators have suggested proteins called amylase trypsin inhibitors may be causing NCGS. These proteins are also found in the same grains that produce gluten and have been shown to trigger inflammatory reactions of the human intestine.
Gluten ataxia, like celiac disease, is an autoimmune disorder that develops in response to gluten consumption. The autoimmune disease causes the immune system to attack the part of the brain that coordinates movement and balance. This causes symptoms such as difficulty walking, speaking, and swallowing, along with tremors and difficulty controlling eye movement. If diagnosed and quickly treated with a gluten-free diet, the condition stops progressing.
In some cases of wheat allergy, severe digestive upset is the only symptom, while others get hives, swelling of the face and throat. Sometimes a wheat allergy can lead to anaphylactic shock. Simply avoiding foods with gluten is often not sufficient to ward off severe wheat allergies, and instead the individual must be diligent in avoiding products that contain wheat or any product prepared from wheat; the names of many of these products do not provide any hint that they are made from wheat. In the US, due to labeling laws, products containing wheat in any form are required to include a warning label.
A wide range of other symptoms and conditions related to neurological dysfunction have been found to resolve or improve after switching to a gluten-free diet; the underlying cause(s) of these conditions is currently unknown but may involve gluten triggering inflammatory or autoimmune conditions. Diagnosing these conditions and then launching a trial of a gluten-free diet is quite a logical stretch for most doctors, and the dietary change may only be suggested after all other efforts to identify the cause of the condition have failed.
Incidence of Health Problems Related to Gluten
The incidences of celiac disease, NCGS, and other conditions related to gluten seem to be steadily increasing. Part of this increase is the uptake of wheat products in areas where wheat was not historically consumed, such as in Asia and Africa, where until recently, diets were based on rice or cassava.
Another cause of the increased incidence of health conditions linked to gluten consumption could possibly be related to the development of new strains of wheat with increased levels of gluten proteins in order to improve the characteristics of breads and other baked goods. In addition, changes in methods used to prepare dough before baking, such as reducing the fermentation time of the dough during rising, may have altered the quantity and characteristics of the gluten in the resulting bread.
An alternative cause for the increased incidence may simply be increased recognition of these conditions. For example, while child-onset celiac was easily diagnosed in the past, the more common adult presentation was generally completely overlooked. In addition, many cases of NCGS have been mistakenly diagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome with no link to gluten consumption established at all.
Get In Touch with Us for More Information
If you think you may be suffering from a condition caused or exacerbated by gluten consumption, or would like to learn more about how digestive disorders can impact overall health, please call to reserve your spot in a free seminar with Naples Vitality. We are happy to answer any questions you may have and provide resources to help you improve and optimize your health.