Updated: Jan 28
There is an ongoing debate as to whether or not we should be eating gluten. Wheat - the main source of gluten in a Western diet - is a major staple in most of the populations diet and there is an increase in the amount being consumed (1). On one hand, the proliferation of mankind since the introduction of gluten to the diet during the agricultural revolution supports the argument for the consumption of gluten. On the other hand, the increase in reported cases of gluten-related disorders and the ever-increasing number of people following a gluten-free diet, supports the argument that gluten may not be beneficial to us (2). Who to believe? Let's delve further into the subject by first identifying what gluten is.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the name given to a family of proteins (prolamins and glutenins) found in crops such as wheat, rye, spelt, barley and oats (BROWS is a good acronym to remember what grains to avoid if you are following a gluten-free diet). Each of the grains listed above contain different prolamins: wheat - gliadin, rye - secalin, barley - hordeins, oats - avenins, and this group of prolamins are often referred to as gluten. Of these prolamins, gliadin is responsible for most of the negative effects related to coeliac disease and gluten sensitivity; other autoimmune responses can also be attributed to it. Avenin, the prolamin found in oats, is similar to gliadin and those suffering from coeliac disease may have an adverse reaction after consumption depending on the cultivar consumed. There is also a risk of cross-contamination with wheat when it comes to oats and the processing involved in its production (3).
When wheat is mixed with water, a sticky, glue-like network is formed - the name gluten is derived from the Latin for “glue-like” - and it is this network which gives dough its elastic qualities and the ability to rise when air becomes trapped in pockets of dough.
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Where Is It Found?
Gluten is found in the following grains:
The following grains are technically gluten-free but contain gluten-like proteins and lectins (another type of protein and anti-nutrient). Though they do not contain gluten, some might still experience negative effects when consuming these grains such as gastrointestinal distress and lethargy. They are:
Always check the label of your food to see if wheat or gluten should are listed.The grains listed above are the natural sources in which gluten is found, however, gluten is often found in many other processed foods. Wheat is used as a thickening agent and can be hidden in anything from sausages to soy sauce.
How It Damages Us?
Let’s start with gluten-related disorders. Gluten-related disorders is an umbrella term used to describe any disease caused by gluten. These can be put into the following categories:
Allergic - wheat/gluten allergy
Auto-immune - coeliac, gluten ataxia and dermetitis herpetiformis
Non auto-immune, non allergic - non-coeliac gluten-sensitivity
Those with a wheat allergy will more than likely experience a fast onset of gastrointestinal symptoms - within minutes of ingestion - and other allergy-like symptoms such as asphyxia.
An autoimmune disorder where the body creates an immune response to gluten leading to an inflammation of the intestinal walls and later, atrophy of the villi. This causes symptoms such as gastrointestinal distress, malnutrition due to poor nutrient absorption, osteoporosis and iron deficiency and is related to other autoimmune diseases such as diabetes type 1, psoriasis, autoimmune hepatitis and more (4) (5) (6). These are all obvious symptoms which point towards a condition such as coeliac but the problem lies with the fact that coeliac disease can exhibit less obvious symptoms such as cerebrellar ataxia and peripheral neuropathy (7). These affect the brain and often manifest as feelings of fatigue and “brain fog”.
This covers everyone else who experiences a non-allergic, non-coeliac reaction to gluten. Symptoms can range from bloating to brain fog, joint pain to dermatitis, and nausea to neuropsychiatric disorders. This wide range of symptoms and disorders are likely caused by gluten but it has been suggested there are other components including lectins, oligosacchirides or agglutin which are responsible for the symptoms (8).
Gliadin and Zonulin
Gluten may also be detrimental to human health by increasing the permeability of the intestinal wall. The intestines have many functions such as nutrient absorption, regulating hydration and electrolyte levels. They also play an important role in regulating the amount of environmental antigens which pass into the blood stream. The permeability of the intestinal epithelium (the single cell layer which covers the small and large intestine walls) is dependent on tight junctions - that is, the mechanism which holds the individual cells in the single cell layer together. Intracellular tight junctions that perform their duty properly allow for passage into the bloodstream of nutrients and fluids and restrict passage of harmful antigens. Zonulin is a physiologic modulator of intracellular tight junctions which, when secreted, reversibly opens the tight junctions. Gliadin (the prolamin found in wheat) has been shown to release preformed zonulin which, in turn, increases permeability of the intestinal walls (9)(10).
A 2015 study by Fasano et al. (11) concluded that “gliadin exposure induces an increase in intestinal permeability in all individuals regardless of whether or not they have coeliac disease.” Increased intestinal permeability or “leaky gut”, allows for a greater passage of food molecules, antigens, lectins and other bodies from the gut into the bloodstream. This leads to an autoimmune response and inflammation of the tissues in the gut (12). Chronic inflammation has been linked with, and hypothesised to be the cause of, most modern ailments such as coronary heart disease, certain cancers and an increased risk of mortality (13).
During the digestion process of gliadin, a substance called gliadorphin - also known as gluteomorphin - is formed. As you may have guessed from the name, gluteomorphin is indeed an opioid peptide which is similar to morphine. They react with the opiate receptors in the brain in much the same way as other opioids such as morphine and heroin, meaning gluteomorphin is addictive and can be mildly sedating. Like heroin, gluten can be addictive, which can explain why some people struggle to remove it from their diets, and may experience withdrawal symptoms when they do (14). Interestingly, studies have shown that Bifidobacterium - a major member of the dominant human gut microbiota, particularly in the gut of infants - has a potential in the degredation of food-derived opioid peptides, thus leading to a reduced risk in related diseases (15). Another interesting area of research involving a link between opioid peptides and Autism exists and has shown there is a link between the two, though more research is needed before a definitive conclusion is made (16) (17).
Should you choose to remove gluten from your diet (the argument for doing so is compelling) there are a few things you should take into account:
A lot of “gluten-free” alternative foods often contain large amounts of preservatives and other nasty additives in order to mimic the viscoelastic producing qualities of gluten. Normal bread is made up of 4-6 ingredients. Gluten-free bread found in supermarkets can contain up to 40 ingredients. The gluten-free flour alternatives used may still contain harmful substances such as lectins which can induce gastrointestinal issues. If you choose to go gluten-free and wish to continue eating bread, try making your own from healthier ingredients.
Prebiotic foods are foods which are not fully digested in the stomach and pass into the large intestine where they feed the beneficial bacteria living in our gut (18). These foods include root vegetables, certain raw vegetables and wholewheat flour. In the standard Western diet, the main source of prebiotic foods is wheat as a result of a low intake of root vegetables and raw vegetables and high intake of wheat. When people stop eating wheat, they inevitably reduce the amount of prebiotics they eat which can lead to a wide range of illnesses and diseases. It is important, therefore, to increase the amount of prebiotic foods you consume should you eliminate wheat from your diet (19) (20).
Higher Quality Diet
Eliminating gluten from your diet should increase the quality of your diet as flour is used extensively in the manufacturing process of several processed foods. When unhealthy, refined and unnatural foods such as biscuits, cakes, bread, pasta, deep fried foods and most other pre-made foods are removed from the diet, natural and wholesome foods typically replace them.
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Gluten related health issues are becoming more and more prevalent in the Western world (21). Completely avoiding gluten in a world where it is pretty much everywhere presents a huge challenge. Even following a strict gluten-free diet can result in contamination from other areas. Scientists are, therefore, looking at ways in which to minimise the negative effects of gluten exposure in those affected by gluten intolerances.
Enzymes And Gluten
It has been discovered that naturally occurring proteolytic enzymes which may possess the ability to degrade gluten are present in the oral cavity. Since human saliva contains more than 600 individual microbial strains it stands that further research needs to be performed to discover, and potentially isolate these enzymes so they can be utilised in future supplementation (22).
One of these enzymes which may block, or at least inhibit, gluten from entering the system where it can cause damage is called aspergillus niger-derived prolyl endoprotease (AN-PEP), and studies have shown that it limits the amount of gluten which enters the small intestine (23).
Another of these gluten degrading enzymes is called Dipeptidyl peptidase IV, or DPP-IV for short. DPP-IV is additionally beneficial as it is able to function in the highly acidic environment of the stomach whereas other enzymes are rapidly degraded (24).
The research and future of gluten degrading supplements is promising, however, it is important to point out that at the preset time, supplementation is not intended to and cannot replace a gluten-free diet, or cure or treat coeliac disease and other gluten intolerances. These supplements should be used alongside a gluten-free diet by those wishing to eliminate gluten from their diet as complete gluten avoidance is near impossible.
The Microbiome And Gluten
It is known that those with coeliac disease have a different set of gut bacteria than those who don’t. In particular, the pathogenic bacteria Pseudomonas aeruginosa is unique to those with coeliac disease and it’s interaction with gluten triggers a different immune reaction than microbes from those who do not have coeliac disease (25).
This line of research is promising. The role of the human microbiome in human health is a rapidly developing field of knowledge and research, so it is safe to assume that in the near future there may be a supplement which can alter the microbiome in order to minimise the negative effects of gluten ingestion in those with and without gluten related intolerance. At least we HOPE there will be one!
Whether or not you decide to eliminate gluten from your diet, you should be aware of the causes for and the consequences of, doing so. There are many people who have successfully removed gluten from their diet and live a high quality life. Forgoing bread and pasta is easy enough but food choices become more limited especially when eating out.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
John Maitland is the co-founder of 'The Evolved Way.’ A personal trainer with over 10 years’ experience, he has worked alongside a wide range of leading CEOs, entrepreneurs and medical professionals. John is a keen athlete and holds a black belt in Shaolin Kung fu. A fan of the great outdoors, he can often be found exploring the British countryside and mountains...or breaking pine boards with his fingers.
Co-founder of 'The Evolved Way', and experienced personal trainer, Samson practices what he preaches. His own healthy lifestyle, which informs this site, is based on understanding the right way to eat and exercise, not excluding of course going out and enjoying life knowing you can still feel and look good.