As she pushes away the bread basket and quizzes the waiter about her entrée ingredients, you feel sympathy for your friend whose doctor recently diagnosed her with celiac disease.
Yet ironically, you don’t connect the headaches, fatigue, and other symptoms you commonly experience with your own gluten sensitivity.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and other grains. About one in 133 people have celiac disease, a genetic condition that can spark an immune reaction if you eat even a little gluten. Celiac disease can not only trigger but exacerbate over 140 autoimmune diseases, which occur more often in people with celiac compared with the general population.
But here’s where things get murkier. Unless you have full-blown celiac, most doctors don’t acknowledge any problems with gluten. Click to tweet
However, about 30–40% of the population have some form of gluten sensitivity that isn’t full-blown celiac but creates many of the same symptoms. According to Dr. Stephan Wangen, author of Healthier Without Wheat, nearly 1/3 of people without the genetic marker for celiac have anti-gluten antibodies in their systems. These antibodies create the same kinds of problems as celiac: A highly reactive immune system goes after gluten and simultaneously damages your small intestine.
Regardless of whether you have full-blown celiac or a sensitivity, gluten can wreak havoc on your body in the following ways.
Gluten creates gut permeability. Gluten contains a protein called zonulin that damages the tight junctions in your gut. This means that things not intended to slip through your intestinal wall suddenly get through, creating an immune response called leaky gut syndrome. Delayed reactions to gluten can occur hours or days later and may include joint pain, brain fog, gastrointestinal problems, anxiety, and depression. That headache you have this morning could be from the wheat pasta you ate last night.
Gluten triggers inflammation. Besides immune-related symptoms, gluten-induced leaky gut creates inflammation. Chronic inflammation is linked to the development of several diseases, including diabetes, Alzheimer’s, cancer, and obesity. A study in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that people with gluten sensitivity had a higher risk of death. The results were shocking: While people with full-blown celiac had a 39% increased risk of death, that number increased to 72% for people with gluten-triggered inflammation.
Gluten-containing foods are low in nutrients. You may worry that without gluten you’ll be missing out on key nutrients. On the contrary, gluten-containing foods are notoriously low in vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients compared to vegetables, fruits, nuts, and seeds. Just compare nutrient rock stars like spinach or almonds with whole grain bread or wheat pasta. Whole foods like spinach and almonds come loaded with naturally occurring nutrients, whereas breads, pastas, and other processed gluten-containing foods contain small amounts of cheap, fortified nutrients.
Gluten impacts nutrient absorption. Not only does gluten bring little nutrition to the party, it also affects nutrient absorption in the body. Gluten-triggered gut permeability, for instance, inhibits your gut from absorbing important nutrients and making vitamin B12. Gluten also contains phytates, an “anti-nutrient” that can block mineral absorption.
Gluten makes you fat. Gluten contains lectins, which can bind to insulin receptors and may contribute to insulin resistance. They can also bind to your intestinal lining, causing you to store more calories as fat. Further, lectins can trigger leptin resistance, which makes you feel hungrier even after you’ve eaten a full meal. (Leptin is a hormone linked to appetite.) Couple lectins with leaky gut, inflammation, and poor nutrient levels that can stall metabolism, and you’ve got a surefire way to pile on weight. Most gluten-containing carbohydrates also raise your blood sugar, which triggers an insulin response. Higher insulin levels do one thing really well: store fat. When people with weight loss resistance stop eating gluten, they typically feel noticeably better, and the scales start moving again.
Ready to ditch gluten for good? Check out part two of this series, where I'll give you five effective strategies to go gluten free.