Do I Need to go Gluten Free?

This blog post was written by integrative RD, Megan Gerber. Megan is based in Boston, Massachusetts and works at a functional medicine practice called Five Journeys. Find her on Instagram @GlutenFreeGerblie where she gives nutrition tips, addresses health concerns, and gives tons of gluten-free recipe and meal ideas!


Celiac Disease is an autoimmune condition where the body attacks itself in response to gluten consumption. So aside from Celiac Disease, is going gluten-free really necessary for all of us? Can we live a full life and prosper with our whole wheat toast in tow? Let’s dive in.

Increased Risk of Leaky Gut

In early 2000, Dr. Alessio Fasano demonstrated through his research that all people develop some level of gut permeability or “leaky gut” any time gluten is ingested (1). Yes, ALL people, regardless of whether we are genetically at risk for Celiac Disease or not.

Leaky gut refers to increased and unwanted intestinal permeability amongst the tight junctions between each cell of the intestinal tract. Dr. Fasano identified that this process of ‘opening of the tight junctions’ is regulated by a protein called zonulin. Gliadin (a component of gluten) activates zonulin release in epithelial cells (5).

Why do we care about this? Properly functioning tight junctions are required for optimal absorption and utilization of nutrients in your gastrointestinal tract (1). In addition, zonulin has been linked as a biomarker of many chronic conditions including autoimmune disease, nervous system diseases, and cancers. Leaky gut is the proposed root cause (2).

Summary: everyone’s gut health, regardless of celiac disease, can be impacted by gluten consumption. Gliadin (in all gluten) causes zonulin (a protein) to release from cells in our guts. Zonulin increases intestinal permeability/leaky gut (not good!) and is also linked to chronic conditions.

Opioid-Like Effects on the Gut

Other research with Autism spectrum disorders has proposed that the gluteomorphins are contributing to leaky gut (6). Gluteomorphins are another name for opioid-like molecules formed from the gliadin protein component of gluten (6). This hypothesis links leaky gut as a potential root cause behind autism and other behavioral disorders in children due to the direct link between our gut and brain functionality. Gluteomorphins are also the reason why some people feel worse at first when they eliminate gluten, think – addiction withdrawal symptoms.

Summary: there is a direct link between our gut health and the way our brain functions. Gluteomorphins (formed by gliadin in gluten) may be the reason behind leaky gut’s connection with autism and other behavioral disorders.

Increased Exposure to Glyphosate

About 15+ years ago, glyphosate began being used for the desiccation (removing moisture) and ripening of wheat. The purpose being, increasing crop yields on single crop farms (3, 8). Glyphosate is the weed killer in RoundUp used by Monsanto*. The rise of glyphosate used means that glyphosate residues are present in the majority of the non-organic wheat supply and thus a large percentage of the processed foods in this country.

Glyphosate has been documented as a zonulin stimulator (3). Therefore, ingestion of glyphosate through our food supply puts us at a higher risk of gut permeability, autoimmune disease, and chronic disease (3). Not only that, glyphosate is now being linked to multiple forms of cancer (7).

This all probably leaves you wondering, is it the gluten or the glyphosate? Potentially both in terms of Dr. Fasano’s research and what we now know about glyphosate. It also is important to note that the use of glyphosate on wheat crops has risen in tandem with the rise in celiac disease (3).

Image from: https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Correlation-between-increase-in-celiac-disease-gluten-intolerance-and-increase-in-use_fig1_286381796

Glyphosate risk isn’t only high in wheat-based foods, it is highly present in dozens of mass-produced crops in this country. Including corn, soy and sugar beets. As well as oats, almonds, and beans (3).

Summary: glyphosate is a pesticide (used by Monsanto) in non-organic wheat crops (and other food crops) in the United States. Glyphosate stimulates zonulin release, just like gluten does. Most likely, both gluten and glyphosate are contributing to the negative impact of gluten consumption on our gut health.

*Monsanto was bought out by Bayer and they have rebranded RoundUp in a new herbicide called Liberty Link.

So Do I Need to Give up Gluten?

For those of us with any sort of digestive problems, autoimmune disease or chronic inflammatory conditions – it is a good idea to do a gluten-free trial for at least one month. Ideally genetically modified organisms, GMO, foods would be removed too. Pay close attention to whether you notice a change in your symptoms!

But What if I Don’t Want to Give up Gluten?

  • To reduce glyphosate exposure (from wheat and other mass-produced crops), choose organic einkorn wheat when possible. This is the “cleanest” source of gluten.
  • Choosing gluten-based foods that are sprouted or fermented further increases digestibility of the food. This makes it easier on your stomach and intestines.
  • When possible, shop locally or from a baker you know. A loaf of organic sourdough bread or sprouted bread would be a better choice than the bread you buy from the supermarket shelves.
  • Nutrient-dense choices of whole grain/organic forms of gluten include: farro, wheat germ, bran, spelt, and bulgur (in tabouli).
  • Try to avoid the processed and packaged forms of gluten such as snack foods, crackers, breads or baked goods laden with sugar.

To reduce glyphosate exposure, eat organic and non-GMO foods. Soy, canola, and corn tend to be the highest in GMOs. You can also eat locally and get to know your farmers and their farming practices, like what they use to fertilize the soil! Better yet, grow your own food! Then you have the autonomy to dictate what goes on the produce and into the soil. You will also expose your microbiome to good bacteria and soil based organisms by getting your hands in the dirt. This article was extremely helpful for learning more about glyphosate and how to reduce our exposure.

References

  1. Hollon, Justin, et al. “Effect of Gliadin on Permeability of Intestinal Biopsy Explants from Celiac Disease Patients and Patients with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.” Nutrients, MDPI, 27 Feb. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25734566
  2. Fasano, Alessio. “Zonulin and Its Regulation of Intestinal Barrier Function: the Biological Door to Inflammation, Autoimmunity, and Cancer.” Physiological Reviews, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21248165.
  3. Samsel, Anthony, and Stephanie Seneff. “Glyphosate, Pathways to Modern Diseases II: Celiac Sprue and Gluten Intolerance.” Interdisciplinary Toxicology, Slovak Toxicology Society SETOX, Dec. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3945755/.
  4. Rej, Anupam, and David Surendran Sanders. “Gluten-Free Diet and Its ‘Cousins’ in Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” Nutrients, MDPI, 11 Nov. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6266983/.
  5. Clemente MG, De Virgiliis S, Kang JS, Macatagney R, Musu MP, Di Pierro MR, Drago S, Congia M, Fasano A. Early effects of gliadin on enterocyte intracellular signaling involved in intestinal barrier function. Gut 52: 218 –223, 2003.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12524403
  6. Christison GW, Ivany K (2006). “Elimination diets in autism spectrum disorders: any wheat amidst the chaff?”. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 27 (2 Suppl 2): S162–71. doi:10.1097/00004703-200604002-00015. PMID 16685183.
  7. IARC. IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans, volume Glyphosate. 2016. http://web.mit.edu/demoscience/Monsanto/about.html.
  8. https://articles.mercola.com/sites/articles/archive/2014/09/14/glyphosate-celiac-disease-connection.aspx?
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