Over the last decade, the gluten free diet has become exceedingly popular. There is a good deal of brands that are releasing gluten free products and restaurants follow with offering gluten free menus. People are jumping on the gluten free bandwagon for different reasons – many of which are not scientifically proven. So, what’s the point of the gluten free craze? Why are so many people avoiding gluten? What are the gluten free diet benefits?
Let’s find out!
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye). It is a mixture of two proteins: gliadin and glutenin. It acts as glue that holds ingredients together, which is why wheat flour is commonly used in baking.
Gluten containing grains are used in the production of a huge percent of foods worldwide, so gluten can be found in a variety of foods other than the expected cereals, breads and pasta. It is a very common ingredient that lurks in unexpected products such as lip balm, chewing gum, sauces, soups, condiments, coffee, medicine etc., which makes following a gluten intolerance diet quite challenging.
Why is Gluten Harmful?
The truth is – it’s not. If you’re a perfectly healthy individual and you aren’t experiencing any uncomfortable symptoms, you shouldn’t be on a strict gluten free diet. As a matter of fact, you can click out of this article right away because you likely won’t get any major gluten free diet benefits.
However, if you’re experiencing gluten intolerance and celiac disease symptoms, you will most definitely benefit from going gluten free.
When is Gluten Harmful?
Gluten is harmful only to people whose bodies are not able to process it. When consumed, it can cause serious damage and lead to various health issues.
Gluten intolerances range from autoimmune diseases such as celiac disease, gluten ataxia and dermatitis herpetiformis to non celiac gluten sensitivity and gluten (wheat) allergy.
Celiac disease is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. It is an autoimmune disease which is triggered by consuming even the smallest traces of gluten. Once gluten is consumed, the immune system reacts by damaging the small intestine. This often leads to malabsorption, nutritional deficiencies and the development of other autoimmune illnesses, such as type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, multiple sclerosis, and more. Symptoms of celiac disease include digestive issues (diarrhea, constipation, bloating, nausea), fatigue, anxiety, joint pain and brain fog. These symptoms can last from several days, weeks and in some cases up to couple of months after consuming gluten. This is why it’s extremely important for individuals with celiac disease to follow a strict gluten free diet. There is still no cure for this disease and the gluten free diet is the only treatment that helps in managing the symptoms. In short, celiacs, unlike healthy people, can actually notice the gluten free diet benefits.
Gluten Ataxia is a rare neurological autoimmune disease triggered by digestion of gluten. The body reacts to gluten by releasing antibodies that attack a part of the brain called cerebellum. When undiagnosed, gluten ataxia results in brain damage and neurological issues that resemble other forms of ataxia: poor coordination – trouble using fingers, arms or legs, poor balance, gait problems, vision issues and talking difficulty. Unlike celiacs, people that suffer from this disease don’t experience digestive issues.
Gluten ataxia is a newly defined condition and it’s still not accepted by all physicians. However, reports have shown that people who live with this disease do get gluten free diet benefits and their symptoms improve. Just like in celiac disease, the gluten intolerance diet has to be very strict and even traces of gluten have to be avoided.
Another autoimmune condition that is triggered by gluten is dermatitis herpetiformis. It is known as the celiac disease of the skin, causing intense itching and burning sensations, red bumps and blisters when gluten is ingested. Just like the autoimmune disorders mentioned above, it is difficult to diagnose – it’s often mistaken with eczema, impetigo, atopic dermatitits, scabies, and other skin conditions. People that suffer from dermatitis herpetiformiscan notice gluten free diet benefits as the symptoms seem to disappear once gluten is removed from the diet.
Other Forms of Gluten Intolerance
Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
According to this study, non celiac gluten sensitivity is a condition which resembles celiac disease by manifesting the same symptoms, but there is a clear distinction between the two.
The concept of NCGS is not new—reports from the 1970s and 1980s describe patients who had a symptomatic response to wheat or gluten withdrawal in the absence of celiac disease.
Gluten sensitivity is not an autoimmune disease and although the symptoms are the same as celiac, the body’s reaction isn’t. There’s no damage to the small intestine as in celiac disease, and being intolerant to gluten does not lead to cancers and other autoimmune disorders and health issues. However, the symptoms of non celiac gluten sensitivity are difficult to manage, and this is why individuals that are gluten sensitive should follow a gluten intolerance diet. There are no tests to diagnose this condition – it is confirmed after celiac disease and wheat allergy are ruled out.
Wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to foods containing gluten, specifically wheat. The symptoms can occur within minutes to hours after ingesting, or inhaling wheat. Symptoms of a wheat allergy reaction include: difficulty breathing, itchy rash or swelling of the skin, nasal congestion, itching or swelling of the throat/mouth, headaches, diarrhea, vomiting and anaphylaxis. Anaphylaxis is the most severe, life-threatening allergy reaction and requires immediate care. Obviously, people who have wheat allergies should avoid eating gluten or using wheat derived products. Just as most allergies, wheat allergy is not always life-long and it may come and go. However, it’s best to stay away from the allergen that causes a reaction and stick to gluten free diet foods.
Gluten Free Diet Benefits
All of the diseases and conditions mentioned above can be managed by following a strict gluten free diet. Thus, the gluten free diet benefits are essentially easing of the symptoms of gluten intolerance and improved overall health and wellness.
The most significant gluten free diet benefits for people with diseases associated with gluten are:
- Improved energy levels
- Reduced joint pain
- Improved skin health
- Improved bone health
- Reduced chronic inflammation
- Improved digestion
- Improved quality of life
- Improved mental health
Of course, the symptoms of these diseases don’t improve immediately after quitting gluten. Bodies take time to heal, and different people react differently to gluten free diet foods. In most cases, the symptoms get better in 1 to 6 months, however, the healing process may take up to two years. It’s important to stay persistent and completely gluten free.
Why Should You Consider Quitting Gluten
If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms mentioned in this article, you might have some form of gluten intolerance and you should talk to your physician. If you have no problem ingesting gluten you should not be worried and you shouldn’t avoid it. After all, gluten is just a protein and it does not cause harm to healthy people. It’s as simple as that!