The burgeoning popularity of gluten-free diets – as advocated by many dieticians, nutritionists, food writers, sportspeople and celebrities to name a few – has had the effect of injecting a surfeit of information into the public domain, not all of it accurate or based on sound science. Questions, as a consequence, abound: are gluten-free diets recommended for those who do not have coeliac disease? What’s the deal with leaky gut? And has gluten been undeservingly tarred as a nutritional no-no?
What is Gluten?
If you’ve yet to be so engulfed by the storm of press around gluten (which has become something of a health buzzword) as to find out exactly what it is, don’t worry: you’re far from alone. Most seek out literature on the topic only after battling digestive discomfort or hearing one of the aforementioned sources advancing it as a potential solution to a slew of health complaints.
Gluten is a combination of grain proteins gliadin and glutenin and is known for helping to bind dough together and make it elastic. Commonly found in wheat, rye and barley, as well as in oats, gluten is responsible for serious stomach aches in sufferers of coeliac disease but has also been eliminated, or partially eliminated, by others reporting gluten intolerance or a simple aversion to the stuff. Some go gluten-free in an attempt to lose weight or are guided by the perception that it’s a healthier way to eat.
They could be right, too. In the words of neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter, ‘Gluten is among the most inflammatory ingredients of the modern era.’ He points out that gluten sensitivity ramps up the production of inflammatory cytokines, key players in neurodegenerative conditions, and he encourages patients suffering from migraines, ADHD, depression, MS and autism to banish gluten from their diet – with often astounding results.
Of course, there is a difference between coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity or intolerance. The former is a genetic autoimmune disease that affects at least 1% of the European population, although only a quarter of people with the condition are clinically diagnosed. Gluten causes the body to essentially attack the small intestine, inflaming the area and hampering digestion and nutrient assimilation. In recent years, links have been made between coeliac disease and liver problems, chronic fatigue, bloating, depression, even skin lesions.
Non-coeliac gluten/wheat sensitivity, meanwhile, is manifested in a similar fashion, and although the small intestines don’t suffer as much damage, some inflammation occurs and symptoms such as diarrhoea, stomach pain and headaches are triggered. These gluten-averse sufferers may test negative for coeliac disease, but the deleterious symptoms are almost identical.
Leaky Gut and the Knock-On Effects
Leaky gut syndrome is another condition to emerge from the recent wellspring of interest in the gut more generally. Leaky gut – or intestinal permeability – occurs as a result of intestinal tight junction malfunction, whereby germs, toxins and undigested food particles breach the mucosal barrier and enter the bloodstream. It is sometimes, but not always, a consequence of coeliac disease and is a common problem for people suffering from chronic fatigue.
According to Dr. Josh Axe, ‘Having leaky gut is essentially like having the gates broken from your intestines to your bloodstream so many particles that should never have been able to enter have gotten through. When this happens it causes inflammation throughout your body, leading to a variety of diseases.’
So what causes leaky gut? Food sensitivities for one – not just gluten but soy, dairy, sugar. Sugar in particular can be inflammatory, in that it feeds the harmful bacteria in the gut. Medications such as antibiotics and pain killers can also give rise to leaky gut, damaging the protective mucus layers and kicking into gear an inflammation cycle leading to intestinal tight junction malfunction. Stress, general food allergies and intestinal infections are among the other originators.
Eliminating the foods deemed toxic by your body is one way to heal a leaky gut, as is scaling back antibiotic use where possible. You could also limit your exposure to toxins in tap water by installing a filter to remove chemical elements from the mains supply.
As well as jettisoning harmful foods and reducing alcohol intake, leaky gut sufferers should aim to eat probiotic-rich fermented vegetables to support the health of the gut. Coconut products are also a wise choice, as medium-chain fatty acids are particularly easy for the body to digest.
There is no shortage of information on leaky gut available; if it’s a problem for you, do your research, consult your physician and take steps to get back on the right track. In some cases, specific blood tests and allergy testing will be necessary.
Should You Consider a Gluten-Free Diet?
If you are coeliac, you’ll naturally have eliminated gluten from your diet already. But what if you’re not? And what if you experience coeliac-like symptoms but are not, in fact, diagnosed with the disease?
There are a few different schools of thought on this. Some aver that gluten-free diets aren’t helpful for anyone who doesn’t have coeliac disease. Others, accepting that we are all different – particularly where our gastrointestinal health is concerned – suggest experimenting to find out what works for you. Plainly if gluten is causing you discomfort, you should eat a diet that is easy on the stomach and doesn’t act as kindling for inflammation.
A gluten-free diet eschews gluten-containing grains, meaning many confuse it with a low-carbohydrate diet and thus pursue it as part of a regular healthy eating regime. However, there are many carbohydrate sources containing sugar or starch but no gluten. If one wishes to simply eat better, and their gut is in good shape, there is no overarching reason to favour cutting out gluten over merely eating a well-balanced, nutritious diet dense with green vegetables, fruit, healthy fats, whole grains, lean protein etc.
If you do decide to nix gluten, whether you’re sensitive to it or not, consuming gluten-free whole grains such as quinoa, millet and buckwheat is a good idea, not least for their fibre content. Remember that a gluten-free diet is by its nature restrictive (goodbye, high-calorie carbs!) though largely healthy. It will also be important to make sure that you’re getting enough nutrients from a gluten-free diet, as many gluten foods are rich sources of calcium, iron and other vitamins and minerals.
Creating the Right Conditions in the Gut for Good Health
Regardless of whether one is sensitive to gluten, coeliac or entirely free of bowel discomfort and food intolerances, it is advisable to create the conditions in the gut which enable better health in general: more energy, superior nutrient absorption, steady regularity, stronger immunity, restful sleep etc.
Earlier this year, scientists in California published findings in the journal Cell suggested Parkinson’s disease may be caused by bacteria living in the gut. It is one of many news items which has underlined the links between gut health and other areas – mental function, stress and disease chief among them. The collection of bacteria living in our gut influences our biology in numerous interconnected ways. Coeliacs should be particularly mindful of this. According to Dr. Perlmutter, ‘An imbalanced microbial community in the gut can stoke and intensify coeliac disease just as the presence of the disorder incites changes in the gut bacteria.’
The aim, of course, should be to cultivate a diverse gut community and nurture beneficial gut microbes by limiting use of antibiotics, following a sensible diet and connecting with nature and all the attendant microbes that come with it.
As mentioned, a great way of supporting your microbiota is by consuming probiotic-laden foods and/or using a high-quality supplement. Top probiotic foods include unsweetened yogurt and kefir and fermented veggies like sauerkraut and pickles; it’s also recommended to limit saturated animal fat, as it can be detrimental to the diversity of gut bacteria. This is the case, too, for highly processed oils (soybean, canola etc.)
Where supplements are concerned, choose a product that contains multiple microbial strains which mimic the diversity of microbes found in fermented food (and in the gut itself). Boosting microbe consumption via high-strength probiotics is especially important if you are undertaking a round of antibiotics.
One of the finest probiotics currently available is Progurt. The clinically tested, super-strength supplement provides 1 trillion beneficial bacteria per serving, 40 times more than most probiotics. Such a large number is necessary to ensure the gut is properly colonised. The Colony-Forming Units are composed of human-derived strains of Lactic Acid Bacteria (LAB) and Bifidobacteria, including beneficial strains of Lactobacillus Bifidus, Lactobacillus Acidophilus and S. Thermophilus. Unlike Progurt, the vast majority of probiotics out there are derived from animals or plants and so not specifically tailored for the complex and unique environment of the human gut.
Irrespective of your probiotic protocol, making smart dietary decisions – about gluten, wheat, sugar, saturated fats etc – will help you gain more control over how your gut affects your health. If a gluten-free diet is the answer, then great; but if you must experiment before finding the right solution, that’s OK too. Ultimately it’s about finding what works and sticking to it.