What is gluten and what should you know about it? In the modern world information is literally a few keystrokes away, it seems easy enough to be in the know on any subject, but sometimes there’s too much to digest (pun intended). The information superhighway can be overloaded with conflicting opinions as well, but there are some helpful basics for the average person starting out on a path to a more health conscious lifestyle. Let's face it, with current issues concerning health insurance and genetically modified foods, the consensus is moving towards preventative medicine: eat better to live better. Maybe 4 or 5 years ago we all began hearing about gluten allergies, but now it is a very commonplace discussion. It's almost to the point where I think everyone I know has one, so let's get down to basics.
Gluten (from the Latin word for “glue”) is a substance found in numerous grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. It is typically present in oats as well due to processing methods. The wheat umbrella includes durum, semolina, graham, spelt, kamut, and triticale. It can get much more complicated from this point, but let's focus on the need to know for beginners. Gluten is made up of two proteins: gliadin and glutenin, which makes up at least 80 percent of most grains. It's used in baking to create the fluffiness and chewiness, and in bread to give it elasticity. Unfortunately, consumers are left to judge for themselves what foods contain gluten since laws do not currently require labels to list the ingredient. However, products are available now which are labeled “gluten free.”
Looking at the facts from an evolutionary perspective, humans have survived as hunter-gatherers for most of the 2.6 million years we have inhabited the earth yet a very small percentage of that time has been spent since the inclusion of wheat. About 11,500 years ago the first evidence of domesticated crops shows up with wheat's early ancestor called emmer. The problem with this date is that in actuality, wheat was not used widespread until roughly 7,000 years ago, meanwhile rice grains in China are dated back to 10,000 years ago, and corn grains were domesticated 9,000 years ago but were not a major source of calories until less than 1,200 years ago! It is no secret that gluten is difficult to digest, and that it has a clear link to aggravating celiac disease (an autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients). These dates along with the fact that 1 % of people of European descent may be afflicted with celiac disease at least attests to the possibility that we are still adapting to wheat as a population.
Across the board it is agreed that gluten allergies are hard to diagnose with 100 percent accuracy, and linking gluten allergies and intolerance to other problems is controversial at this point. On the other hand, proponents of the health challenges resulting from even mild “gluten-sensitivity” range from physical to mental ailments that millions of Americans face today. Gluten allergies are linked to health challenges from mild gas and upset stomachs, to more serious conditions such as depression, skin eruptions, and infertility. A statistic of note is that celiac disease was previously found in 1 in every 3000 people, but recently it is as high as 1 in every 300. What's worse it that the difference between celiac disease is defined as atrophy of the small intestine. Imagine a healthy small intestine lined with villi that looks like shag carpeting, and one with celiac disease as worn down into flat Berber carpeting. Now, if it's only partially worn down, you won't be diagnosed with Celiac disease but may continue suffering with the symptoms indefinitely. The moral to this story is that when it comes to health, what we don't know can hurt us and so better to be safe than sorry.
Here is a compulsory list of gluten intolerance symptoms and Celiac disease:
Weight loss or weight gain
Nutritional deficiencies due to malabsorbtion e.g. low iron levels
Gastro-intestinal problems (bloating, pain, gas, constipation, diarrhea)
Fat in the stools (due to poor digestion)
Irritability and behavioral changes
Infertility, irregular menstrual cycle and miscarriage
Cramps, tingling and numbness
Slow infant and child growth
Decline in dental health
The symptoms of celiac disease, a gluten allergy or a gluten sensitivity range greatly, but there is a bright side. The treatment for these conditions is the same: a gluten-free diet. Moreover, the best way to determine if you may be afflicted by any of these ailments is also, and I repeat, a gluten-free diet! In the same time it takes to finish that novel, or lose that last 5 lbs., you can change your life by eliminating gluten for a couple weeks and possibly change your life. Good health is worth it. In fact, this dietary shift may even end up helping you lose the weight without the scary new exercise regimen! It's important to remember that modern medicine has it's limitations but some tried and true methods like a healthy lifestyle and knowledge as power is always a good defense, so read on! Here's to a healthier you!