Gluten intolerance is on the rise, and ‘Non-Coeliac Gluten Disorder‘ is now a recognised condition, and definitely not a faddy diet option.
So what has changed in recent years to make us so reactive and intolerant to wheat?
Modern wheat crops are now complex configured hybrids, and in evolutionary terms – relatively new to the human gut. They contain much higher levels of gluten for a start, effectively increasing our exposure to the gliadin/glutenin proteins.
The complexity of these newly configured wheat proteins make them very difficult to digest. This is not helped by digestive capabilities that are hindered with ‘antacids’ and naturally decline with age, which could explain why intolerance is more common in the older age groups. If semi-digested wheat peptides get absorbed, the gut’s immune system is tasked with having to differentiate them, to ‘tolerate’, or mount a reaction. In effect, to decide if they are ‘friend or foe’. A mild food sensitivity can become a chronic intolerance, in conjunction with leaky gut syndrome, leading to a full blown immune reaction with the production of gluten antibodies.
The Cyrex blood test looks at a multitude of wheat and gluten proteins capable of triggering an immune reaction. It also looks at a long list of other foods with cross-reacting capabilities, i.e. foods that contain proteins similar enough in structure to mimic gliadin and gluten. These can make the immune system treat them the same and therefore perpetuate the same response, initiated by gluten.
A common cross-reacting protein is casein, found in milk (dairy). Studies show that about 50% of gluten sensitive patients have a problem with casein. Less common are reactions with proteins found in Whey, Soy, eggs and some of the other starches/grains typically used as replacements for wheat by patients following gluten-free diets.
A perfect example is the patient who substitutes corn and millet products found in the ‘gluten-free’ section of their local supermarket. Studiously adhering to a strict gluten-free diet, they never-the-less find their gut symptoms unchanged and gluten antibodies remaining stubbornly high. On testing, this client was found to have elevated anti-gliadin antibodies resulting from a cross-reaction to Millet at a level of 4+.
Only by testing, identifying, and removing cross-reacting foods, can gluten avoidance be really effective.
Leaky gut – another modern phenomenon
Today, we eat on the run, and grab a bite between meetings. How often do we sit and focus mindfully on a meal? Efficient digestion needs relaxation to produce good levels of stomach acid, vital for digesting proteins, which also ensures good levels of intestinal and pancreatic enzymes, to break down foods into their smallest constituent parts.
Single amino acids – when absorbed – will not challenge the immune system.
It is incomplete digestion that leaves proteins acting as ‘antigens’. A healthy gut has a dual role, to provide an effective barrier to antigens, the larger semi digested food particles, bacterial toxins and pathogens, whilst giving passage to the tiniest fully digested micronutrients. It needs to perform like the finest cheesecloth, yet so many people’s guts resemble a leaky ‘colander’
The factors that can challenge and disrupt the integrity of the gut lining are:
- History of antibiotics (reducing the protection afforded by diverse gut flora).
- Use of NSAIDs (e.g. anti inflammatories like Ibuprofen, Asprin).
- Gastroenteritis or IBD: Ulcerative Colitis, Crohn’s or Coeliac disease.
- Chronic stress, or chronic dietary imbalance (high sugar/alcohol consumption).
- High consumption of wheat and legumes. (Both contain lectins that can loosen ‘tight junction’ cells in the intestines)
- Chemical pesticides (Scientists are studying pesticides like Glyphosate, sprayed on crops prior to harvesting. Research shows it damages the guts of insects regarded as pests).
The wheat-alcohol connection and leaky gut
Individuals who lack a certain enzyme (DPP IV) struggle to digest gluten proteins. For these people, consuming wheat-based foods together with alcoholic beverages can intensify the impact of these wheat/gluten antigens, because the alcohol makes them more soluble and more easily absorbed. In a recent study, researchers identified 150 different gluten peptides in beer alone. For a susceptible individual, consuming beer with a wheat product such as pizza overwhelms the digestive system with soluble, easily absorbed gluten peptides.
Worryingly, new research is showing that the immune system’s antibodies generated in response to wheat and gluten may also cross the blood-brain barrier. This may explain the typical ‘brain-fog’ and mood symptoms experienced by some people with gluten/wheat intolerance.
Adhering to a strict gluten-free diet is not easy. There may be more choice than ever before with food manufacturers responding to recent demand with a broader range of gluten free products, but unfortunately many manufacturers of processed foods and condiments actually add wheat starch and gluten to a whole host of unrelated foods like potato crisps, sauce thickeners, salad dressings, soy sauces, chilled ready meals, and even sushi, leading to many patients’ inadvertent gluten consumption. Painstaking scrutiny of all packaging small print is therefore a must for anyone needing to avoid it.
For someone with the autoimmune condition Coeliac Disease, accidental ingestion of just one molecule of gluten is serious as it can trigger an immune response that lasts for many weeks. To this end, it can be helpful for anyone with a gluten disorder to carry (emergency) digestive enzymes with them when eating out. Ignorance around gluten unfortunately prevails in many kitchens, both professional and domestic, with cooks and chefs often thinking a little teaspoon of flour won’t be noticed or felt. Taking a digestive enzyme supplement with a meal you don’t fully trust, can assist in the breakdown and digestion of those troublesome gluten peptides. This is not to say that gluten can return to the menu, simply that its risk of being absorbed undigested as an ‘antigen’ can be reduced.