Why is it that much of our society seems obsessed with gluten these days, hence “gluten-free” is now virtually a religion! But is this preoccupation with gluten scientifically justified or just another diet cult? Let’s explore. As brilliantly illuminated a few years ago by renowned clinician/researcher Dr. Alesio Fasano, the true culprit underlying the etiology of numerous digestive disorders, including IBS and autoimmunity, is not gluten per say, but rather the indigestible gliadin peptide contained in modern wheat that is a health hazard to varying degrees in respect to all humans, regardless of whether they present with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) or full-blown Celiac Disease or neither of the aforementioned. Gluten is essentially a type of protein comprised of the peptides gliadin and glutenin, which are found in many modern strains of grains such as wheat, semolina, spelt, kamut, rye and barley.
Additionally noteworthy is that today’s highly-processed wheat has also been deaminated, allowing it to be water soluble and capable of being mixed into virtually every type of packaged food you could think of. This deamination process has been shown to produce a significant immune response in many people. In our modern world of ubiquitous fast food, we are eating far more wheat than our ancestors ever dreamt of eating. When our immune system’s antibodies try to defend us against attacks by gliadin and glutenin, the microvilli in our digestive tract can atrophy and erode, decreasing our natural ability to absorb nutrients, thus making the walls of our intestines “leaky”, aptly-named by gastroenterologists as Leaky Gut Syndrome (LGS). This intestinal erosion can manifest itself as numerous unpleasant digestive symptoms including bloating, constipation, diarrhea, weight loss, fat malabsorption, and malnutrition, e.g. iron deficiency anemia, low vitamin D, and even osteoporosis. The blunting of microvilli is a hallmark of Celiac disease, which is a chronic, not acute, condition that develops over many years, not something that you’re genetically born with and stuck with no matter what you do or what you eat. The bottom line is that our gut can only handle X number of years of relentless assault by the pernicious peptides gliadin and glutenin.
Tightly regulating intestinal permeability is one of the basic functions of the cells that line the intestinal wall. Gliadin can cause the gut cells to release zonulin, a protein that can break apart the tight junctions holding our intestines together. Once these tight junctions get broken apart, the gut is officially considered “leaky”. A leaky gut allows toxins, microbes, undigested food particles, and antibodies to escape from the intestines and travel throughout the body via the bloodstream. The antibodies that escape are the ones which the body produced to attack the gliadin in the first place. Celiac Disease is therefore the result of many years of assault upon the gut by the toxic effects of gliadin and the resulting “zonulin effect” described earlier. The true takeaway is that the human digestive tract simply did not evolve to digest wheat any more than it did to digest grass that free-range cows are able to consume (we cannot absorb and digest cellulose), yet we “clever” humans have managed to find a way to process indigestible organic matter that we should not have been putting in our mouths to begin with. I plan to cover other such examples of “evolutionary mismatch” in future blog posts.
What this all amounts to is that, whether or not we are gluten-sensitive or Celiac or neither, it makes about as much sense to eat foods that we did not evolve to eat as it does to feed Snickers bars instead of meat to a lion in a zoo. I’m pretty sure the animal rights folks would be up in arms if a zoo keeper did that!