Gluten is a complex protein molecule, forming both strong and elastic material, which is a natural part of many grains. It is found in grain endosperm, starchy middle part of the seed, where it forms the water-insoluble protein portion.
The major part of wheat gluten consists of gliadin and glutenin, rye gluten is mostly formed by secalin and in barley it is called hordein. Maize contains zeins which evolutionary developed separately from other grains and usually do not cause problems. Similarly, avenins in oats can be eaten safely by about half of celiac patients – the problem is usually due to contamination of oats by other grains.
The most suspicious in causing health problems is wheat gluten – gliadin – often classified as cytotoxic protein. If not digested properly, it can be harmful to both coeliac and non-coeliac people.
Gluten in wheat flour is very desirable for baking – it helps bread, rolls and cakes to rise and keep them light, airy and soft. This is the main reason why the commercial bread making and baking industry requires flour with high gluten content. New wheat hybrids were therefore over decades designed to have much higher content of gluten than older versions.
Gluten sensitivity and Coeliac disease (US spelling celiac)
Gluten sensitivity (also called non-coeliac gluten intolerance/sensitivity, NCGS) is a different type of problem than coeliac disease but both seem to be on the rise. This is very likely due to frequent use of modern wheat products (see the table below) but other causes, such as use of herbicide glyphosate (also known as RoundUp) for drying the crops, are not excluded.
Wheat flour seem to be on the menu more-less all day, every day - toast for breakfast, croissant for snack, sandwich for lunch, biscuits with tea and pizza or pasta for dinner. Most of soups, sausages and batters are wheat based too. Such diet can trigger series of troubles, even if we do not have coeliac genes (and such genes are found only in about 80% of coeliac patients). Moreover, wheat proteins are present in many ‘healthy’ bars and drinks, cosmetics and soaps and even medical plasters and tablet coatings. This is because modified hydrolysed protein is easily soluble in water, it’s cheap and have many practical uses in both food and non-food industries.
Undigested parts of gluten can irritate delicate lining of digestive tract and cause reactions of various severities. Some people can experience only temporary inflammation and slight discomfort, others can develop coeliac disease. Symptoms can be very similar, and blood test for gliadin antibodies and other markers (TTG, DGL, EMA) do not always show presence of typical coeliac disease. This is usually diagnosed only after the lining of the intestine is already badly damaged (stage Marsh 3-4).
The main difference between coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten intolerance is the fact that full-blown coeliac is autoimmune reaction, where presence of gliadin switches on the immune reaction against its own cells and tissues. Certain type of immune reaction can also happen in non-coeliac gluten intolerance, but its character and immune cells involved are completely different. The reactions can also happen in other parts of body tissues, i.e. skin exposed to cosmetics with wheat protein as an ingredient.
As mentioned before, both coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten intolerance are able to cause inflammation. Inflammation of intestine can lower the ability to absorb nutrients from food. Typical coeliac disease completely destroys intestinal lining and the ability to absorb nutrients becomes very low. The early symptoms can vary depending on which nutrients become depleted first.
Digestive symptoms – intestinal cramps, pain, discomfort, diarrhoea or constipation, lactose intolerance, dairy protein intolerance, bloating, dysbiosis
Neurological symptoms – dizziness, pins & needles, headaches, migraines, brain fog
Skin & mucosal symptoms – hives, swellings, itchiness, aphtous ulcers in mouth, dermatitis, hayfever and sinus blockage
Other – fatigue, anaemia, loss of weight in children, lethargy, inflammation, muscle pains, period pains, low immunity, thyroid problems, and depression
Long term complex problems – CFS, Crohn’s disease, diverticulitis, osteoporosis
If you suspect possibility of gluten connected to your health problems, try to avoid it for a short period (3 days – 1 month) to see any improvements. It can take different amount of time for different people.
However, if you suspect full-blown coeliac disease, for example you also have a family history of coeliac, it is best to do all the tests before starting gluten-free diet. Otherwise the markers for coeliac may not get detected in your blood and this could postpone possible diagnosis.
Avoiding gluten does not need to be as hard and inconvenient as it seems at first. Try to look at the situation from different perspective – take it as a chance to enrich your diet, add more nutrient-dense foods (not calorie-dense), more taste, try new foods and gluten-free grains you would otherwise ignore or return to traditional wholefoods our ancestor eat and thrived on.
SOURCES OF GLUTEN
Wheat – white/plain flour, wholemeal flour
Bread and other bakery products (cakes, biscuits, croissants, rolls, pastries…)
Older types of wheat:
Spelt, Kamut, Einkorn, Emmer, Dinkle, Bulgur
Monoccum and Faro has shown the least harmful effect.
(including egg pasta)
Barley - including beer and malt, malt extract
Oats - contaminated by other grains
Seitan – vegetarian meat replacement
Spirits – here it depends greatly on their purity
Foods containing „protein isolate“
Soy sauce (unless gluten free such as Tamari)
Sauces – ready made, tinned, most from restaurants
Soups – ready made, tinned, most from restaurants
Meat products – sausages, ham, salami, most crab meat, some fish fillets, fast food meats
(Wrigley, Orbit, Winterfresh are without gluten according to manufacturers, with other gums it is recommended to ask the manufacturer)
Ice-cream (with emulsifiers and stabilisers)
Spices (ground with anti-caking agents)
Rice and soy milk (unless gluten free – NOTE : these often contain damaging vegetable oil, soy milk is not healthy for other reasons)
Hydrolysed vegetable protein
(these can be from wheat)
Coffee – flavoured, cereal
Cosmetics and soap with wheat protein
Postal stamps and envelopes
Coating on some sweets and tablets
Emulsifiers – some are made of gluten
Dog & cat food
Adhesive tapes including medical plasters
Some textiles and leather
Divergence of gut permeability and mucosal immune gene expression in two gluten-associated conditions: celiac disease and gluten sensitivity
The Oslo definitions for coeliac disease and related terms
Environmental factors of celiac dise... [J Gastroenterol Hepatol. 2007] - PubMed - NCBI
Wheat gluten in food and nonfood systems