The Gluten Dilemma: Unraveling the Impact on Digestion & the Immune System

The Gluten Dilemma: Unraveling the Impact on Digestion & the Immune System


Gluten has become a buzzword in the health industry. From gluten-free diets to specialized products lining supermarket shelves, it's clear that people are taking notice of this protein and its potential impact on how we feel.

Let’s explore the world of gluten: What is it? Where is it found? What are gluten’s potential impact on digestion and the immune system? What are some ways to avoid its potential detrimental effects?

What is gluten and why might it be a problem?

Gluten is a group of proteins that naturally occur in wheat, barley, rye, and various other grains. These proteins play a crucial role in giving dough its elastic properties, allowing it to rise and hold its shape. Gluten is made up of two primary proteins known as gliadin and glutenin.

Consuming gluten creates problems for about 1 in 16 individuals because it can trigger an immune response that damages the small intestine lining. That outcome can lead to various digestive and health issues. Surprisingly many people experience varying degrees of gluten sensitivity or intolerance, which means they may need to be mindful of their gluten intake. For certain individuals, consuming gluten can lead to digestive and immune response problems due to an intolerance to this protein, while a smaller percentage of the population has a medical condition called "celiac disease" which requires them to completely avoid gluten in their diet.

Where is gluten hiding?

Gluten is present in various food products like bread, pasta, cereals, cakes, cookies, and pastries. It can also be hidden in unexpected places such as soups, sauces, dressings, ice cream, and certain medications. Surprisingly, gluten can even be found in non-food items like cosmetics, Play-dough, and certain adhesives.

How does gluten affect gut health?

For those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, consuming gluten can trigger an immune response, damaging the small intestines and causing various digestive symptoms like abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea. Prolonged exposure to gluten can lead to long-term intestinal damage and hinder nutrient absorption. What's less commonly known is that gluten can harm the digestive tract and intestinal lining of all individuals. This creates a vicious cycle: we eat gluten, it damages the intestinal lining, our body tries to heal, we consume gluten again, and the cycle repeats.

Some symptoms that we may attribute to other causes like age or busy lifestyles could actually result from gluten damage.

What is the difference between a gluten intolerance, sensitivity, and allergy?

  • Gluten intolerance (celiac disease): 
  • Gluten intolerance is synonymous with celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder affecting about 1 percent of the population. For those with celiac disease, gluten consumption triggers an immune response damaging the small intestinal lining, leading to digestive issues and long-term health problems. Managing celiac disease requires strict gluten avoidance.

  • Gluten sensitivity (non-celiac gluten sensitivity): 
  • Gluten sensitivity, also called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, refers to a condition where people experience adverse symptoms after consuming gluten, despite not having celiac disease or a wheat allergy. The exact mechanisms of gluten sensitivity remain unclear, and there are no definitive tests for its diagnosis.

  • Gluten allergy (wheat allergy):
  • A wheat allergy is an immune response triggered by proteins found in wheat, including gluten. Unlike celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it is an IgE-mediated immune response, similar to other food allergies. Symptoms can range from mild hives and itching to more severe reactions like swelling, difficulty breathing, and in extreme cases, anaphylaxis. Complete avoidance of wheat and wheat-containing products is essential for individuals with a wheat allergy.

    Should I avoid gluten? 

    If you suspect gluten sensitivity or have celiac disease, adopting a gluten-free diet is vital. By eliminating all gluten sources from your meals, opting for naturally gluten-free foods like fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and gluten-free grains, you can avoid a gluten-triggered response and still maintain a balanced and nutritious diet. When dining out, be cautious of cross-contamination in kitchens.

    How is it that I’m able to eat bread overseas but not here at home? 

    Interestingly, some individuals with gluten intolerance experience fewer symptoms when traveling outside of the United States. While individual experiences may vary, this could be attributed to differences in the wheat varieties, processing methods, and overall dietary habits in other regions. 

    How does gluten trigger an Immune system response?

    Gluten can cause damage in the intestinal tract with broader implications for the immune system. For those with celiac disease, gluten-induced inflammation can trigger an autoimmune response, leading to various conditions like skin issues, joint pain, fatigue, anemia, and an increased risk of other autoimmune disorders. Even in the absence of a celiac diagnosis, similar symptoms can occur because gluten-induced inflammation may manifest differently in various individuals.

    What’s the bottom line on gluten?

    Understanding gluten's impact on digestion and the immune system is crucial for everyone, not just those with gluten intolerance or celiac disease. By adopting a limited or gluten-free diet, avoiding hidden sources of gluten, and seeking guidance from healthcare professionals, you can take control of your health and reduce associated risks. Listen to your body and make informed decisions about your dietary choices, as everyone's body is different.

    For more information about your body's potential for gluten sensitivity based on your unique genetic coding, check out our Pure Essentials Genetic Test

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