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What's The Problem With Gluten?

What's The Problem With Gluten?

At 8foods we are not only keto and paleo, we’re also gluten and dairy free as well. These principles are a founding part of our ethos and brand identity, so I wanted to talk a little today about why we are gluten free - what’s the deal with gluten? 

Gluten is a complex topic, so to delve into this further here’s Nutritional Therapist, Grace Kingswell


You may have heard the statistic that less than 1% of the population has coeliac disease, an autoimmune condition that is based around a severe immune reaction to gluten. Well, this is true! But I often think that this statistic gets used as almost a justification by the media, or whoever else, to say that the rest of us can just happily scoff bread, pasta, pastries with impunity when there are serious gluten-related conditions that are not coeliac disease. 

So the first thing I want to touch on is the difference between coeliac disease, non-coeliac gluten-reactive autoimmune conditions and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. 

What is the difference between coeliac disease, non-coeliac gluten-reactive autoimmune conditions and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity?

All are immune-mediated, meaning that the immune system creates inflammation as a direct result of eating gluten, but the mechanisms are different. 

Coeliac disease is very specific, it’s an autoimmune reaction that must include damage to one specific part of the gut: the villi (these are the finger-like protrusions that you may remember from GCSE biology!) If it doesn’t include villus atrophy, it can’t be called coeliac disease but it still might be gluten-reactive autoimmunity. 

Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis (an autoimmune condition of the thyroid), can be called a gluten-reactive autoimmune condition because the proteins in gluten look very similar to the proteins naturally found in our thyroid. The mimicking of thyroid proteins by gluten sets off an autoimmune reaction in the body which weakens the thyroid and overall health considerably. There are other autoimmune conditions that are also down to gluten (involving the skin in some and the brain in others), so that’s the first thing to note: the autoimmune problem is not as simple as ‘does this person have coeliac disease or not?’

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity is a relatively new area of research, which I think is why it’s less widely accepted as being an issue. The messaging and communication pathways are different and specific tissues like the villi or the thyroid aren’t targeted but gluten in this case causes inflammation in general. It’s considered to be a bit less serious, but the fact is the body is still responding and mounting an immune response to an ‘invader,’ weakening the immune system overall.

So why have I started out with all this sciency stuff? I think really it’s so I can impress upon you the severity of the reaction that we can have to gluten.  Gluten can affect every single tissue in the body, NOT just the gut. In fact, it’s largest area of impact is the brain. So you may not have bloating or digestive issues, but you may feel exhausted or have brain fog.  In reality there’s so much variation from person to person - so your experience of eating gluten might be very different to mine, despite the fact that neither of us have coeliac disease! If you don’t have severe symptoms yet experience brain fog, lack of energy or joint pain, there’s good reason to consider trying a 30 day elimination and reintroduction of gluten to see how it changes your wellbeing overall.

What happens when we eat gluten?

The first thing I’d like to say here is that your immune system doesn’t cause gut symptoms like bloating or gas. If you’re having bloating then that’s down to the microbes in your gut probably being out of balance.  


But why does our body have an immune reaction to gluten then, and not other foods? 

Gluten is a protein, a string of amino acids made up of letters essentially. Now, the human immune system is trained to recognise certain portions of the protein, in fact, it can recognise somewhere between 3 and 50 amino acids in sequence, and when your immune system comes into contact with that part of gluten it starts an immune messaging and communication chain - like chinese whispers. And this inflammatory message can be sent anywhere in the body, and your individual susceptibility will tell you where it lands - neurological, joints, skin issues etc. 

I suppose the most important thing to point out here is that gluten is a huge protein and actually as humans we struggle to break it down adequately, so more often than not we still have these really recognisable chains of amino acids coming into contact with our immune system and setting off a reaction. 

But why is gluten more of a problem for us now? When since agrarian times we’ve eaten wheat? 

Pause For Thought: Our Paleolithic ancestors are unlikely to have eaten wheat, so are we really evolved to eat it at all? 

This part of the gluten puzzle hasn’t really been solved yet, but there are a lot of theories. One of those is that wheat has been hybridized a lot and selectively grown - i.e. it looks different now than it did 100 years ago. Another theory is the amount of pesticides used to grow and harvest wheat has increased exponentially. Glyphosate is commonly used as a desiccant in wheat harvesting, leaving residual pesticide traces in the end product causing the body to react. 

Secondly, most of the wheat products we eat (consciously and unconsciously)  today are made with highly processed wheat, i.e. white flour that is basically devoid of nutrients. The production processes are also quite different, for instance mass bread production is a very rapid process versus the slow proving process for a loaf of sourdough. Gluten is also rife in all our food supply, in thickening agents, in the glue that holds tea bags together, in sauces and soups. So our exposure is much higher than it would ever have been. 

Thirdly, we are different, not just our food. If we compare ourselves to our grandparents, we’re three generations further into antibiotic usage, vaccinations, the contraceptive pill, over the counter medicines that change the way the immune system works (like anti-inflammatories), we drink a lot of alcohol and we are stressed in a way that our grandparents weren’t. So even if the wheat were the same, we aren’t - we’re operating differently, we’re less resilient. 

As a Nutritional Therapist it makes my job so much easier to have brands like 8foods producing really high quality, clean, nutritionally dense gluten and dairy free alternatives as it can be overwhelming for people to think that they need to give up their favourite bagel or sandwich at lunch time. What we eat affects how we feel on a really intricate level, so why not try a 30 day elimination and reintroduction? The proof is in the (gluten free) pudding.   

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