Recent scholarship suggests that we as a species have been eating bread for about 30,000 years. Some other schools of thought pin that number closer to 10,000. Any way you slice it, we’ve been eating wheat for a long, long time.
And yet, in the last decade or so, gluten – a protein composite containing soluble gliadins and insoluble glutenins – has become public enemy number one, especially among holistic and functional medicine practitioners.
From the Latin “gluten”, meaning “to stick”, gluten is what gives wheat products their chewy texture. It’s what allows bread to rise in the oven and pasta to be soft and malleable. It also makes up around 80% of the wheat protein.
Research into whether what we’re eating today is the same kind of bread that we were eating thousands of years ago is sparse, but gaining traction. A common theory is that the cross-breeding of wheat through travel and the invention of agriculture and industrial tools has molecularly changed the shape and behavior of gluten.
That idea suggests that while we could once process gluten without problems (or without identification of gluten as the root of our problems), we can no longer.
Some say that gluten causes leaky gut syndrome – the condition where intestinal joint connections become loose and allow macroparticles of food to slip through the gut lining and into the bloodstream.
Others say that it merely exacerbates an existing genetic condition or environmental condition, the markers of which react more strongly to the presence of gluten.
The bottom line is that you know your body best – if you don’t feel well after consuming something with gluten, usually presenting with cramps, stomachaches, nausea, and intestinal upset…
You know it’s probably not for you.
But let’s take a look at why…
Gluten and Zonulin
We’re not going to get too in the weeds, but let’s break down what happens to gluten in your digestive system.
In a normally functioning gut with no leaks, gut tight junctions are spaced apart evenly, but close together, so that they can effectively filter and transfer nutrients between the mucous membrane in and out of the gut lining.
In some (though it seems not all) digestive tracts, when soluble gliadin reacts with CXCR3 receptors in the intestinal lining cells, a new protein is born called zonulin.
Zonulin reacts with lining cells and causes tight junctions to become looser and separate from each other.
I bet you know what’s coming next…
Once those junctions are no longer secure, macroparticles can make it through the lining in a way they previously couldn’t.
Voila – leaky gut.
Once those particles are released into the bloodstream (or get stuck in the gut lining), you’re looking at infection, allergy development, inflammation, and at the very least, discomfort.
About three million people in the U.S. suffer from celiac disease, and it’s estimated that 80% of the population with celiac disease is undiagnosed.
While some studies assert that zonulin was activated in both people with and without celiac disease, levels of the protein were much higher in those with the disease.
Other studies have shown that in otherwise healthy people, zonulin activation does not lead to intestinal permeability.
However, a lifestyle that increases the risk of leaky gut syndrome – including excessive drinking, smoking, nutrient deficiency, dysbiosis, high sugar intake, overuse of NSAIDS like ibuprofen, etc. – can also increase the risk of developing a gluten allergy.
If the gut is permeated, and macroparticles of gluten leak out of the gut, the immune system will attack those particles believing they are a foreign body. For all intents and purposes, they are a foreign body. They don’t belong where they are.
Although more research is always being completed, it’s important to be aware of how gluten behaves on a molecular level. Once you know, it makes sense to be careful not to consume too much of it.
Without going completely gluten-free, there are plenty of substitutions you can make – chickpea pasta, almond flour cookies, cauliflower rice, and so on.
Try replacing gluten foods where you can and monitor how you feel! You may save yourself a lot of trouble down the road.