You probably know someone that says they have a sensitivity to gluten. Avoiding gluten has become increasingly popular among health-conscious people for various reasons. So, why are people finding that gluten is such a problem?
Here’s the deal - when you eat gluten and it goes through the small intestine, it triggers the release of a protein called zonulin. When zonulin is produced, it basically opens up holes in the intestinal wall1,2. This action is useful in small amounts, allowing immune cells to sample contents of the digestive tract and decide if they need to respond to any threats present. However, when high amounts of zonulin are floating around, more and larger holes open up in the lining of the intestines. Obviously, having a bunch of holes in your intestinal lining is not a good thing as it becomes tissue damage. And when those holes open up, large molecules that should not cross the intestinal lining and into the bloodstream are allowed through.
What does the body do when foreign “invader” molecules enter the bloodstream? The immune system responds, tags the molecule, and cells begin to attack anything that looks like it1. In this situation, the attack occurs even if that molecule is a normal human-produced molecule that just happens to be in the wrong place1,3. This is how autoimmune disease develops, which wreaks havoc on your body, so let’s avoid this! On top of that, with inflammation and repeated damage to the gut lining, your gut can’t absorb nutrients very well. So no matter how much food you’re eating, if gluten is regularly part of your diet, you’re going to be malnourished on some level.
This pathway leading to damage of the gut lining is why so many people without a diagnosis of Celiac Disease are still experiencing a reaction to gluten (known as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity). Studies have shown that even people that report having no negative reaction to gluten STILL produce zonulin and go through the whole gut damage cascade2. That’s right, gluten causes damage to the gut in everyone – not just those with crazy symptoms after eating it. Those with Celiac Disease just have more receptors to stimulate the process of making zonulin, so their response is much more pronounced1,2.
When the gut gets damaged by zonulin, inflammation is triggered because that’s how our bodies respond to damage and try to protect themselves. Because we generally eat food every day, this causes a cycle of continuous gut damage and inflammation. We now know that chronic inflammation is the cause of most diseases…see where this is going? I generally recommend that people avoid gluten as much as they can to prevent this inflammatory cycle. For those that swear they have no reaction to gluten, I still recommend they keep gluten consumption pretty minimal because we know that either way, it damages the gut.
Don’t know if you’re particularly sensitive to gluten? Call us up! We can figure out what foods are causing inflammation in your body.
Fasano A. Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2012;1258(1):25-33.
Hollon J, Puppa EL, Greenwald B, Goldberg E, Guerrerio A, Fasano A. Effect of gliadin on permeability of intestinal biopsy explants from celiac disease patients and patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Nutrients. 2015;7(3):1565-76. Published 2015 Feb 27. doi:10.3390/nu7031565
Uhde M, Ajamian M, Caio G, et al. Intestinal cell damage and systemic immune activation in individuals reporting sensitivity to wheat in the absence of coeliac disease. Gut 2016;65:1930-1937.