Gluten is the topic of several ongoing debates. But what is gluten?
On one hand, many say it’s bad for your health.
On the other hand, there are those who consider it irresponsible to avoid gluten in our diet.
There are definitely many opinions. In this article, we want to leave the personal criteria behind. We’ll dive into what science has to say about gluten.
From here, you’ll be able to draw your own conclusions.
First… let’s start from the beginning…
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What is gluten, where is it found, and what role does it have in our diet?
Gluten is the generic name given to a mixture of proteins found in cereals. This includes:
- Wheat and its variants (kamut, semolina, spelt)
Wheat is one of the “big three” cereal crops. More than 600 million tons is harvested every year.
607 million tons of wheat, 652 million tons of rice, and 785 million tons of maize were harvested in 2007 (reference).
Yet, wheat has the largest geographic range of cultivation.
We find it from 67° N in Scandinavia and Russia to 45° S in Argentina. Wheat even grows in high elevation regions of the tropics and subtropics (study).
It has an unequaled range of diversity. So much so, that it’s embedded in the culture and the religion of various societies. (For example, the body of Christ in Judeo-Christian traditions.)
When did we start eating gluten?
It’s believed that humanity began consuming wheat (thus gluten) about 10,000 years ago. This goes in line with the agricultural revolution.
The first cultivated forms were local varieties. Farmers selected them from the wild wheat population, presumably for their superior yield.
As agriculture grew, we devoted ourselves to the harvest and livestock. Life started to become more sedentary.
Here began the most radical transition that happened to the human life in all its history.
The passage from nomadic to sedentary. We had an economic base of hunting and gathering. This then became a productive economic base of agriculture and livestock.
The agricultural revolution and health
There are many theories on why humans moved to agriculture. The consensus is clear: that this change was a needed one.
This transition began in the fertile crescent (Mesopotamia and ancient Egypt), the pre-Columbian cultures of Central America, and the culture developed by the Chinese in East Asia.
The demographic increase of hunter-gatherer societies required more food. So, people started growing plants as a form of survival.
This process was diachronic, unequal, and required an extensive stage of experimentation. But once produced, there was no going back. Agriculture grew from strength to strength. (study)
Thanks to agriculture, humans produced their own food for the first time.
Growing food allowed us to anticipate how much we needed. Also, we could store it and spend time developing other skills.
But, this change in eating habits had an effect on the range of food we consumed. Dependence on a single crop introduced a growing monotony into the human diet.
Compared to the hunter gatherers who preceded them, the first farmers had a decline in health indicators. We have the below archaeological indicative data:
- A fifty percent increase in enamel defects associated with malnutrition.
- A four-fold increase in iron deficiency and anemia. (shown by a bone condition called porous hyperostosis)
- Three times as many bone lesions.
- A reduction in the median height. The average height of the hunter gatherers was 1.8m for men and 1.67m for women. With the appearance of agriculture, it decreased to 1.6m for men and 1.5m for women (study).
- Malnutrition and confinement brought the first epidemics and a shorter life expectancy.
Driven by the need to feed an increasing population, human beings moved towards the safety of food production.
Once the change was made there was no going back. As a species, we expanded as never before. As individuals, we paid the price for this success with our health.
What is Gluten? Understanding Gluten Components
To know exactly the health impact that gluten has on your body, you must understand its components.
The main proteins that form gluten are:
This is the protein that most people are referring to when they talk about problems with gluten.
About half of all wheat protein is gliadin.
Anti-alpha-gliadin antibodies are are likely to be elevated in those with celiac disease. Also in those with a sensitivity to non-celiac gluten. Although, they are not the only ones.
These antibodies are associated with autism spectrum disorders, celiac disease, and wheat allergies. Studies show that these antibodies can generate cross reactions with brain proteins. This affects the function of the nervous system. (study)
Another type of protein that’s associated with celiac disease, exercise-induced anaphylaxis, and wheat allergies.(study)
Anti-gliadin antibodies are not usually tested for. So, people who react to this protein may give a false negative.
Next to alpha gliadin this is the other great wheat protein.
Anti-glutenin antibodies are often found in patients with dermatitis herpetiformis.
Wheat germ agglutenine
Agglutinin is a lectin with the ability to bind to many cells and tissue antigens.
Agglutinin interferes with digestive enzymes by disabling them. It can cause the generation of antibodies against the tissue to which it binds.
Gluteomorphine and Prodinorphine
Gluteomorphine and Prodinorphine are opiate peptides.
The poor digestion of gliadin forms glutathorphine. While profinorphin is directly injested.
Both compete with endogenous endorphins for their receptors. They’re associated pathologies of the autistic spectrum and painful syndromes. Also, gluteomorphins bind to lymphocytes by altering their function.
Gliadin transglutaminase complexes
Transglutaminases are enzymes that break down gliadin in the intestine.
When it binds to gliadin it forms a complex that can adhere to the intestinal wall. Defensive cells notice it and can activate an immune response.
The gliadin-transglutaminase complex is associated with inflammatory bowel disease.
Phytates are substances that can block the absorption of certain minerals. Although they are not proteins, we have added them in this section because they’re a component of wheat that can impact our health.
This study shows how the phytic acid of wheat inhibits the absorption of iron.
Here’s a summary of the wheat substances that affect our physiology:
- Various proteins that cause the body to generate antibodies.
- Glycoproteins that interfere with our digestive processes and can activate our immune system.
- Peptides opiods that interfere with our endorphins.
- Antinutrients such as phytic acid that hinder the absorption of some micronutrients.
Now, let us take a look at how these things affect people who don’t have a specific issue with wheat.
Gluten: effect on your Health
Human intestines are unable to digest gluten
Although most people can safely tolerate and eliminate gluten, no one is able to digest it completely.
In general, your digestive enzymes degrade proteins into smaller pieces called peptides. This allow you to absorb the components of proteins. But there is a strange protein that your enzymes cannot degrade: gluten! It has a large variety of indigestible peptides that can stimulate your immune system. In fact, the body can perceive gluten as a potential enemy: reacting as if it were a dangerous bacterium and generating an inflammatory response.
Consuming gluten is stressful for your defenses.
Add this to the daily battles you already have to deal with. This does not mean that in itself it generates a pathology. It means you have an inflammatory factor to take into account. Like contamination or a viral infection. (study)
Gluten increases pain perception
In this study of Nature, patients with digestive discomfort (but without celiac disease) who consume 60 grams of gluten see an increase in their perception of pain.
Gluten boosts your appetite
It makes you eat more than you need: the opiate substances act as appetite stimulants.
Gluten causes inflammation
As seen in the below image, the presence of gliadin in the intestine induces the expression of a protein called zonulin in 100% of people. This increases intestinal permeability and the risk of penetrating microbes or large molecules.
The body then activates the immune system to defend us from aggression. (study)
Gluten produces metabolic effects that can cause obesity
Consuming wheat (and thus gluten) increases your intestinal permeability and stimulates the production of pro-inflammatory substances by activating the immune system.
This could be explained as follows: the body, realizing that it is in a moment of danger, tries to save as much energy as possible.
It decreases basal metabolism (burns fewer calories), facilitates the storage of fat, and decreases the perception of feeling full.
A final point: Cross-reactions of gluten
If you have identified that wheat and gluten makes you feel bad or if you want to give your immune system a rest, you should know that sometimes if your body already reacts to a component of wheat it may also react to other foods.
This is known as a cross reaction.
This may explain why you continue to notice symptoms signaling you ate gluten even if you didn’t.
Foods with Gluten, Products with Gluten
The food sources where gluten is naturally present:
All of the products that contain gluten use one of the above ingredients as a main ingredient or added element.
We have always recommended to consume fresh foods instead of products, but if you have some products in your fridge or drawers , its important to know which contain gluten:
- Pasta (All types)
- Salsas (Ketchup)
- Fried products
- Snacks like chips
- Capsule Cafe
- Integral Biscuits
- Many Icecream types
- Miclk or Yoghurt in Powder form
- Dried Fruits
- Cold meats like Hot Dogs
The foods that frequently generate cross reactions with wheat are:
- Wheat is a very modern food and it seems that humans have not completely adapted.
- Wheat has made us fat and more depressed than ever.
- Wheat affects our physiology so much that it’s very difficult to choose what to mention and what to omit. Otherwise this could be a very long post.
- Gluten is present in the majority of food. If you want to remove gluten from your diet, you must look closely at the ingredient labels of products that you eat. You can also follow our recommendations and eat raw foods avoiding all products.
It’s important to note that we live in a world where wheat is present in nearly all of our meals. So, the effects of gluten we’ve spoken about impact us constantly.
If removing bread from your diet forever seems very hard, maybe consider only eating it on special days.
Take this as an opportunity to diversify your nutrition. Discover the delicious fruits and vegetables that nature has given us.