We know that a strict gluten-free diet is the only way to manage celiac disease. For the 1 percent of the population who suffers from celiac disease, gluten-free is a way of life.
But what about the 60-70 million people who suffer from digestive diseases, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease, can a gluten-free diet help them?
And what about the 74 percent of Americans who experience GI discomfort such as diarrhea, gas, bloating and abdominal on a regular basis, according to this study, can a gluten-free diet help them too?
Gastroenterologist Alessio Fasano of Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, might answer, “Yes.” He estimates that as much as 6 percent of the global population may be sensitive to gluten, but also indicates that gluten is very hard for humans to digest. (Source: NPR.com)
Dr. Fasano tells NPR that gluten creates symptoms similar to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), such as abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, gas constipation, and gluten is often the culprit behind unexplained symptoms like brain fog, chronic headaches, fatigue and joint and muscle pain.
I’d like to talk about several reasons why gluten might be the source of digestive discomfort for millions of Americans even if you’re not diagnosed with celiac disease.
Gluten is Hard to Digest
Experts like Dr. David Perlmutter say gluten is hard to digest because humans weren’t meant to eat it (and hadn’t been eating it for millions of years), while experts like Dr. John Douillard say that gluten isn’t the culprit, our digestive system, or lack of a properly functioning digestive system, is the issue (except for celiacs who should never eat gluten). However you spin it, gluten makes your digestive system work hard.
Your stomach is constantly working in overdrive to digest all the food – and gluten – you eat. It’s a lot of work, especially when 70 percent of our population is overweight or obese and likely eating more than they should.
When your stomach is working hard after a big meal or a meal with lots of gluten, your digestive system inevitably becomes taxed. You might first start to experience things like acid reflux and heartburn due to all the stomach acid bubbling up to break down everything you ate. These are early clues that your digestive system is being compromised.
Gluten Can Lead to Leaky Gut
Additional digestive discomfort may be caused from the undigested particles breaking through your small intestine’s walls and entering your body as free radicals. This phenomenon is called “leaky gut.”
Your small intestine is essential for absorbing nutrients from the food you eat and then distributing those nutrients throughout your body. It’s essential for good health as it ensures our bodies get and absorb vitamins and minerals from our food.
However, when the stomach doesn’t properly break down the the food particles, these food particles enter into the small intestine anyway. They have nowhere to go, so they “leak” out – or more like “bust” out – of your small intestine, damaging the walls and potentially calling upon your immune system to launch an attack on the undigested particles (as is the case for celiacs and others suffering from autoimmune diseases).
Gluten Triggers Zonulin
Dr. Fasano offers another possible explanation of why gluten is the cause behind digestive discomfort.
He found that gluten triggers the release of zonulin, which is an inflammatory protein Dr. Fasano discovered that “helps regulate leakiness in the gut by opening and closing the spaces or junctions between cells in the lining of the digestive tract.”
Dr. Fasano explains why gluten gets out of the gut. He says, “People with celiac have an increased level of zonulin, which opens the junctions between the cells. In essence, the gateways are stuck open, allowing gluten and other allergens to pass. Once these allergens get into the immune system, they are attacked by the antibodies.” (Source: University of Maryland Medical Center)
Researchers tested Dr. Fasano’s theory by measuring blood levels of zonulin in four groups: (1) those with celiac disease, (2) those with irritable bowel syndrome marked by diarrhea, (3) those with self-diagnosed gluten sensitivity and (4) healthy volunteers. They found that both celiacs and gluten-sensitives had high levels of zonulin in their blood, and those with IBS had elevated levels, and healthy volunteers had negligible levels of zonulin. (Source: NPR.com)
This research suggests those with a gluten sensitivity have high levels of zonulin equal to those of someone with celiac, which might even mean that those who are gluten sensitive may even have a genetic predisposition to celiac disease.
So Should You Stop Eating Gluten?
If you’re suffering from digestive discomfort on a regular basis, perhaps it’s time to take a close look at your diet. Maybe simply by eating less food you will suffer less. Or maybe eating more nutrient-dense food and less processed food will cure you of your tummy woes.
However, if that doesn’t work, maybe, just maybe, following a gluten-free diet will help you rid of embarrassing digestive discomfort for good. I’ll let you be the judge.
Is your gut in shambles? Do you want to heal your gut from digestive discomfort? Sign up to take the FREE Heal Your Gut with 7 Changes Challenge. I’ll send you one tip per day for seven days so you can heal your gut and live your life again.