You’ve heard that going gluten-free might be good for you. Maybe you’ve already started a gluten-free diet, and you’re noticing some benefits, but you’re not really sure.
Despite all the information out there about gluten, it can be confusing to know just how it may be affecting you. Are you someone that is sensitive, and should be cutting back? If so, how might it help you?
If you’re still a little confused on the whole thing, this post is for you.
Why Go Gluten Free?
About one in 133 Americans has celiac disease, which means their bodies can’t process gluten correctly. If they continue to consume it, it can attack the small intestine, leading to damage that interferes with nutrient absorption. The only way for those with celiac to experience relief is to eliminate gluten.
Sometimes, however, even in people without celiac disease, a gluten intolerance or sensitivity may be present. If so, it can cause symptoms like digestive upset, headaches, joint pain, and even brain fog.
The last several years have seen a rise in both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Celiac is more than four times as common as it was 50 years ago. Part of that is because diagnostic testing has improved, but that doesn’t explain all of it.
Why is This Happening?
Scientists have a few theories.
How we process wheat and other gluten products, for example, has changed over the past several decades. We now use oxidizers, new methods of yeasting, and other chemical processes that may be changing how gluten reacts in the body. Some small studies have indicated that older processing methods eliminated more gluten than current methods do. Bacteria used to make dough rise were more likely to break down gluten and other proteins back then, making gluten easier to digest.
The wheat we use today has also undergone extensive hybridization as a crop. Scientists started crossbreeding wheat in the 1950s to make it hardier and better growing. Breeding was actually intended to improve “gluten strength” in some cases, creating greater loaf volume potential and increasing its ability to hold its shape during baking. These changes may have made the gluten interact differently with our immune systems, or the delicate balance of bacteria in our guts.
Most of today’s conventional wheat crops are also treated with insecticides, particularly glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup. In 2015, a new study suggested that glyphosate could be connected to the rise in celiac disease:
“Glyphosate residues are found in wheat due to the increasingly widespread practice of staging and desiccation of wheat right before harvest,” the researchers wrote. They went on to explain that the insecticide disrupts gut bacteria and enzymes, potentially impairing digestion.
We also consume more wheat on average than we did a century ago. It has gradually made its way into a number of our foods, far beyond breads and cereals. Now we find it in processed wheat products like pastas and baked goods, as well as in condiments, soups, and even candies.
Whatever may be causing the trouble between gluten and the human body, a lot of us are feeling the effects. One option is to choose only foods made with organic wheat, but it might be safer to just cut wheat out until farming practices change.
So for those of you considering making the switch and eliminating gluten, how can you expect our health to improve?
5 Ways Gluten-Free Can Improve Your Health
First, a word of caution.
Going gluten-free can make you vulnerable to a lot of products out there. Beware of processed foods shouting “gluten-free!” on their packaging. These products tend to be overly processed and higher in sugar and fat.
Don’t fall for the hype. Choose whole, natural foods instead.
After a few weeks on your new diet, you should experience the following health benefits. If not, it may be that gluten isn’t your problem. Check out our article on FODMAPs for other potential culprits.
1. Improved digestion.
This by far the most commonly experienced improvement in those choosing to go gluten free. Certainly those with celiac disease will experience less digestive upset. But those who are gluten intolerant or sensitive should also expect to feel much better in the belly.
Things like diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas, cramping, and overall discomfort should lessen significantly as your intestines no longer have to deal with gluten. If you’re still having trouble, make sure you’ve completely eliminated gluten (it may be lurking in some foods like sauces and condiments).
2. Less pain.
In those who are sensitive to it, gluten can cause inflammation and pain throughout the body. Common symptoms include joint pain, muscle cramping, headaches, and even numbness in the legs and feet. You should feel much more comfortable after getting gluten out of your life.
3. Healthier skin.
The same way that gluten can cause inflammatory problems in the joints, it can also cause inflammation in the skin, leading to acne breakouts, eczema, psoriasis flare-ups, itching, hives, and rashes. If you suffered these pre-gluten-free, you could see your flare-ups lessen after about a month on your new diet.
4. Better mood.
A common sign of gluten sensitivity is brain fog or mood swings. The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness notes that people with gluten sensitivities report foggy thinking, ADHD-symptoms, and even depression—all of which are believed to be connected to the inflammatory compounds released when they eat gluten.
Many people who eliminate the protein find that they can think more clearly. Cutting back may also help improve your mood.
5. Increased energy.
Fatigue is another common symptom of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Gluten-induced fatigue can be a sign of internal inflammation, or in the case of those with celiac, a malabsorption of iron, which can cause extreme fatigue. It can also be a sign that the intestines are not absorbing nutrients from food in general as well as they should be.
Many people also just feel sluggish and sleepy after consuming gluten.
As you eliminate gluten from your diet, you should feel your energy levels returning to normal. When the inflammation subsides and the body soaks up nutrients more efficiently, it’s better able to produce the energy you need.
Time – The Rise of Celiac Disease Still Stumps Scientists
The National Institute for Health – A Changing Environment and the Increasing Prevalence of Celiac Disease
CBS – Gluten-Free Diet Fad: Are Celiac Disease Rates Actually Rising?
Surgical Neurology International – Glyphosate, Pathways to Modern Diseases III: Manganese, Neurological Diseases, and Associated Pathologies
SF Gate – What Are the Benefits of Eating Gluten-Free?