What is Gluten and Why Should I Care?

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I assume that by now you’ve heard the term “gluten” at least once. Let’s take a closer look at what gluten is and why we should be concerned about it.

In Latin, gluten means “glue.” It is a component of wheat (including durum, semolina, and spelt), rye, barley, and related grain hybrids like triticale and kamut. Even oats – which do not inherently contain gluten – usually have it due to cross-contamination, since oats are processed using the same machinery as gluten-containing grains.

Gluten is what gives elasticity to dough, helping it to rise and to keep its shape, and often giving the final product a chewy texture. It is actually made up of many different proteins divided into two main groups: gliadins and glutenins.

Gluten is a real problem for many, as it is a major contributor to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, cancer, dementia, depression, and many other modern ills.

Gluten-related disorders include a spectrum of diseases that we could classify based on the kinds of reactions that gluten triggers in people. It includes allergic reactions, mainly to wheat; auto-immune disorders such as celiac disease; and the milder, but possibly the more symptomatic problem of gluten sensitivity.

Celiac disease is a chronic digestive disorder caused by a hereditary intolerance to gluten. For people with celiac disease, gluten damages the villi, the small, hair-like projections that line the small intestine and enable the digestion process. Damaged villi cause chronic inflammation that blocks the digestion of food. When someone with celiac disease eats grains that contain gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the small intestine which, over time, causes malnutrition due to malabsorption of nutrients. Malabsorption can cause someone to appear either anorexic or obese.

Peter Green, Director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, says patients with gluten sensitivity may notice more severe symptoms than those with celiac disease, who often show no symptoms while gluten antibodies silently damage the intestinal tract.

Symptoms of gluten sensitivity include foggy thinking, mood swings, stomach pain, bloating, diarrhea, and fatigue after consuming gluten.

As we can see, wheat could be driving more than your digestive system crazy. While wheat is well known to wreak havoc on the gastrointestinal health of genetically susceptible folks, such as those with celiac disease, and more recently, irritable bowel syndrome, new research published in the journal Psychiatry Research indicates that sensitivity to one of the components in wheat known as gliadin could be driving some into states of acute mania like schizophrenia. There are actually over a dozen neurological conditions linked to wheat consumption.

Additionally, wheat is the major source of gluten in our diets, although gluten is not the only issue with wheat. You see, wheat today is not the wheat our grandmothers used to bake their bread. Wheat today is referred to by some as “FrankenWheat” – a scientifically engineered food product developed in the last 50 years that has been hybridized to increase yields, and it has much more gluten protein in it. It’s also much higher in sugar than you might realize, as each slice of whole wheat bread may contain the equivalent of one tablespoon of sugar. “Along with its addictive sugar content, gluten is also highly inflammatory,” says Dr. Frank Lipman.

What happens if you cut gluten out of your diet? Dr. Lipman says you’ll lose weight, think more clearly, find the circles under your eyes diminish and puffiness goes away. Your cholesterol levels can even come down and joint pain may get better.

I say that’s worth a try, don’t you?

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July 2012
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