Gluten Free. Why? How?

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Gluten is a protein found in wheat, spelt, rye, barley, kamut, triticale and oats. The word glue comes from gluten. Remember making paste glue from flour and water when we were kids? Gluten has a sticky, binding property that mechanically give wheat flour exceptional handling and baking properties. It also makes gluten a particularly difficult protein to digest. Instead of being broken down to individual amino acids in the gut, it may only be partially broken down into chains of amino acids called peptides. When these gluten peptides get into the bloodstream they cannot be used by the body so the immune system attacks them, in time creating more and more antibodies to gluten. At the very least, this distracts the immune system from doing more important things, like controlling inflammation, infection and cancer. Worse, sometimes these gluten antibodies look at tissues in our body that resemble the gluten peptides and begin to attack our own body tissues.

Celiac disease is a full blown allergy to gluten. Approximately 1 in 50 people are celiac. Average length of time to diagnosis of celiac disease is eleven years, because the symptoms can vary so widely and it is difficult to test for allergy or sensitivity to gluten. Dr. Tom O'Bryan, who researches and speaks on gluten sensitivity estimates that 75% of the population has some degree of gluten sensitivity. That means that those people react to gluten as if it were a virus or bacteria, creating antibodies that may attack our own tissues, such as the lining of the intestines, brain and nervous tissue, organs and glands or connective tissues like tendons, ligaments and muscles. In his lectures, Dr. O'Bryan shows slides of brain MRI's of gluten sensitive people showing white matter lesions in the brain, similar to Multiple Sclerosis patients. Follow-up MRI's of gluten free patients show the reduction and disappearance of these white matter lesions. He also shows two MRI's, seven years apart, of a man who refused to give up gluten, seven years later the follow-up MRI showed 30% loss of brain tissue.

So if we have any sensitivity to gluten, there is a possibility that our brains, or other organs and tissues may be under attack.

The word agglutinate also comes from gluten. It means that things, like cells and tissues in our body may clump and stick together, similar to the effect that sugar has on our bodies. Live blood analysis shows that red blood cells sticking together will improve on a gluten free diet.

Dr. Tom Braley in his book "Dangerous Grains", lists over 200 diseases, disorders and negative health effects caused by gluten including cancer, auto-immune diseases, such as Crohn's Disease, Multiple Sclerosis, Lupus, Rheumatoid Arthritis, depression, schizophrenia, neurological problems and digestive disorders.

Dr. Tom O'Bryan shows research from a study on children with ADD/ADHD that 100% of these children had some or significant improvement on a gluten free diet.

Wheat is our most common source of gluten. If you soaked whole wheat kernels in water to soften them, then chewed them, in a few minutes all that would be left is the gluten. It is like chewing gum and can be chewed all day without further breakdown in the mouth.

Gluten is not the only problem with wheat. There are several other anti-nutrients that cause health problems. Phytates are substances found in the bran that bind with minerals such as calcium, zinc, iron and others and prevent their absorption. Enzyme inhibiters cause the pancreas and other organs to reduce important enzymes needed to digest and absorb starches and B-vitamins. An enzyme inhibitor called pyridoxine glucosides prevents assimilation of up to 80% of any vitamin B6 present in our food.

There are also lectins in wheat, such as WGA or wheat germ agglutinin, (there's that sticky word again) that cause inflammation and permeable bowel, or leaky gut, which allows undigested food, and pathogens to get into our bloodstream, which cause or contribute to more immune system stress.

Reducing sugars of all types -- including starches, which are quickly turned into sugar, often improves digestion and many other health problems, including psycho-emotional problems. However, reducing gluten may not result in any noticeable improvement. It is only the complete elimination of gluten for at least 30 days that will show improvement. Why? As long as there is any gluten in the diet, even just once a month, the antibodies to gluten will remain elevated and on alert for gluten and possibly still attacking some part of the body.

In fact, the best test for gluten sensitivity is at least 30 days of complete gluten withdrawal, followed by one meal containing gluten, then waiting at least 3 days for delayed reactions. If you are sensitive to gluten, you will likely notice a reaction, physically, mentally or emotionally. Some doctors say that 6 months of no gluten are needed to see improvement or to elicit a response when gluten is reintroduced.

I see many people in my practice experience improvement on a gluten free diet, such as improvement in digestion, reduced pain, better sleep, more energy, weight loss, and less anxiety and depression. For myself when I went off gluten, I lost 15 pounds, dropped my blood pressure 20 points and just felt better overall. If I indulge myself and eat some gluten, the next day I will experience sinus congestion, fatigue and depression. Dr. Braley says that the most common effects of gluten are depression and skin problems.

The other problem with gluten is that it is addictive. Dr. Tom O'Bryan says there are 15 distinct opioids in gluten. These are morphine-like substances called exorphins (from outside the body) that stimulate our endorphin (from production inside our body) receptors. This affects the production and use of our natural endorphins and makes us crave these morphine like substances in wheat. These exorphins are also found in milk and corn. That is why we call products made with these foods, "comfort foods." They latch on to our endorphin receptors, making us feel good, temporarily, until the drug is used up, leaving us craving for more.

So, one of the difficulties we face in eliminating gluten is that we can suffer withdrawal symptoms. People will tell me. "I just don't feel satisfied unless I have some bread, or pasta, or my toast or bagel for breakfast."

Culturally, we are conditioned to value wheat as a sacrament, or savior "Bread is the staff of life". It is used as a sacrament in Christian traditions -- the "body of Christ" and Jewish and Muslim traditions as well. Our government diet experts encourage us to eat several serving of grains daily. "Wheaties, the breakfast of Champions" is deeply engrained in our cultural beliefs.

With the ever presence of wheat in our culture and in our diet, combined with the addictive properties, no wonder that we have such a difficult time giving it up and going without it.

It is usually only the people motivated by the information I have just given you or motivated by serious health problems that will ever consider going without wheat and other gluten containing products.

It is my experience, and the experience of other health professionals, that many people experience noticeable improvements in their physical and psychological health, and that some people experience significant, even remarkable improvements when going gluten free.

Annette, in her late 50's, came to me with chronic pain, inflammation and neurological symptoms of tingling in the extremities. She had a sister with MS. She was willing to go gluten free, and within weeks these symptoms were gone. As a bonus, she also lost 30 pounds.

Jeff came to me with chronic low back pain. His orthopedist recommended steroid injections. He was on daily medication for pain. First we did deep tissue massage, exercise and movement therapy and natural anti-inflammatories such as fish oil, vitamin D, curcumin and MSM with little improvement. He was willing to go gluten free, and within 2 weeks noticed a decrease in his back pain. Within a month, it was gone.

If you have any health situation that is not improving, despite medications, changes in diet, supplements and therapy, try going gluten free. But it must be complete. Some people are able to go cold turkey and stick with it. Others try, slip up, try again, and slip up again and give up. For some people it is very difficult. Remember, gluten is a drug, just as sugar, caffeine, alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and pain killers are drugs. It takes persistence, support and education to overcome addiction.

What I recommend is a more gradual withdrawal. Start with breakfast. Replace the toast, bagel or donut with an egg or piece of fruit. Instead of a sandwich for lunch, have a salad with protein in it, like some chicken, tuna, or hard boiled eggs. For between meal snacks, have something with protein and fat, like nuts, a hardboiled egg, a can of tuna, salmon or sardines. For dinner, instead of pasta, put your tomato sauce with meat, shitake mushrooms, herbs and spices over steamed or sauted vegetables. Instead of cake or cookies for dessert, have fruit, or plain yogurt with fruit, or some cheese. Other snacks might be celery with almond butter or peanut butter. For that mid afternoon energy slump, have a cup of tea with a spoonful of coconut oil, or a handful of almonds, walnuts, cashews, pecans or brazil nuts.

Learn where gluten lives. Read labels, look for the words flour, or food starch. If you use prescription medications, tell the pharmacist that you are gluten sensitive and they will give you meds that are gluten free. When you eat out, say "no" to the bread basket. Tell the wait person that you are gluten sensitive, ask if there is flour in any of the sauces for meat or fish dishes. Go to the Celiac Society website to learn of other hidden sources of gluten. Yes, it is a hassle, but you and your health are worth it.

By learning where gluten lives, and finding healthier replacements, over a 30 day period you can completely eliminate it, which is the only way you can experience the benefits.

What about the multitude of "gluten free products on the market? "Gluten Free" are code words for "high sugar." While these gluten free breads and pastry products can be a helpful stepping stone to those going through withdrawal from breads and pastas they are usually made from rice flour and potato starch, which have a high glycemic load, or sugar effect. My advice is to use vegetables, oils like olive oil and coconut oil, nuts and seeds and proteins instead.

The Celiac Society website and googling for online chat rooms about gluten free can be helpful resources.

For many people, once they experience the benefits of being gluten free, it becomes easier because they feel so good, and, feel so bad when they relapse.

The other thing to remember is that 30 days, or even 60 days, is a very short time compared with the rest of your life. It is a small sacrifice with the possibility of great benefit.

There is no health care plan, or health care reform that will really make much difference. But you, taking personal responsibility for your health by making a conscious choice about what you put into your mouth, can make a huge difference in your health, vitality and happiness.

I encourage you to give gluten free a 30 or 60 day trial. Instead of feeling deprived, feel curious and interested in this bold and new way of eating.

It is energizing, transformative and empowering when we realize it is us, not our doctors, insurance company or pharmaceutical medications that determine whether we are healthy or not.