If you didn’t happen to catch the viral Jimmy Kimmel video, you’ve gotta see it! This video exemplifies the gluten-free diet trend, and the accompanying lack of understanding of the powerful potential of the gluten-free diet. It’s no secret that many people are following a gluten-free diet “just because”, but the reality is that the majority of these people do feel much better on a gluten-free diet and many are truly better off eating gluten-free. Why is that? Why do so many people feel better on a gluten-free diet? First things first, if you aren’t already aware, gluten is the protein found in wheat, barley, rye and oats and so a gluten-free diet eliminates any and all foods made with these grains. Okay, so why do people do better on a gluten-free diet? Here’s a run down of the most common reasons why you might feel better on a gluten-free diet:
1. Celiac Disease
Celiac disease affects 1 in 133 healthy people and 1 in 20-30 people with chronic health complaints, such as fatigue, infertility or GI issues. Since the vast majority of people with celiac disease are undiagnosed, many times people stumble upon a gluten-free diet and unknowingly treat their celiac disease. So what’s wrong with this? The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict, lifelong gluten- free diet. When someone unknowingly treats celiac disease with a gluten-free diet, it may not be implemented fully and to the extent needed to completely heal the body.
If a strict gluten-free diet is not adhered to a person with celiac disease is at increased risk for thyroid disease, other autoimmune conditions, intestinal cancer, depression, anxiety, infertility, nutrient deficiencies, chronic fatigue, osteoporosis, other undesirable health conditions and early death. A strict gluten-free diet requires attention to every single food, medication, supplement and beverage eaten. It also means addressing gluten contamination in food preparation at home, restaurants, parties, and friend’s homes, and on dates and vacations, and at school. There’s no risk-free break from a strict gluten-free diet. In celiac disease, “cheating” and deviating from the gluten-free diet affects your entire body. Every single body system is affected.
2. Dysbiosis and Small Intestinal Bacterial Overgrowth
Dysbiosis is the presence of abnormally high pathogenic bacteria, parasites and/or yeast in the gastrointestinal tract. Small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) is the presence of colonic bacteria in the small intestine where it shouldn’t be. People with either of these imbalances may experience GI complaints, depression, anxiety, ADHD and fatigue, in addition to overweight, altered hunger cues, and diabetes. A gluten-free diet will help to alleviate these symptoms and conditions by beginning to rebalance gut flora. Here are some risk factors for altered gut flora:
- Use of antibiotics
- Use of stomach acid blocking medications
- Use of narcotics
- Use of corticosteroids
- Stressful lifestyle
- Stressful events
- Gastrointestinal infections
- High sugar diet
- High refined grain intake (bread, cereal, pasta, cookies, cakes, crackers, snacks etc)
- High meat intake
- High refined oil intake
A gluten-free diet is a diet/lifestyle strategy used to correct gut flora imbalances, but it is only ONE piece of a comprehensive approach to rebalancing gut flora.
3. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
Like celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a whole-body condition in which gluten can trigger dysfunction in any body system. NCGS is associated with GI problems, depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, autism, “foggy mind”, headache, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, leg or arm numbness, eczema, skin rash, and anemia. Due to the similarities in presenting symptoms with celiac disease, NCGS is diagnosed by excluding celiac disease with a properly done intestinal biopsy and/or genetics for celiac disease. If celiac is ruled out, then a gluten elimination and challenge is used to diagnose NCGS. The treatment for NCGS is exactly the same as in celiac disease.
You might wonder why it is important to exclude celiac disease if the treatment for NCGS is exactly the same. While the basic diet is the same, the total diet and lifestyle approach is different for celiac and NCGS, thus it is best to understand how the body is reacting to gluten so that you can receive proper care beyond treatment with a gluten-free diet.
4. Allergies & Food Hypersensitivity
Traditional allergies are IgE-mediated immunological reactions to foods, which are identified by skin prick tests and blood tests. Even though IgE-mediated responses are typically immediate, when someone is allergic to wheat, barley, rye or oats (the gluten-containing grains) they might not be aware of it. These tests are only a first step to identifying allergies. Beyond IgE-mediated reactions, delayed reactions to food that are very difficult to identify with standardized elimination diets and food journals. IgG food sensitivity panels and the Mediator Release Test provide valuable information to help guide personalized elimination diets in the pursuit of identifying reactive foods. When someone tries out a gluten-free diet, or an even more comprehensive dietary approach, such as the Paleo diet or a ketogenic diet, and they feel better, the question should be raised, “is this because I’ve eliminated a reactive food from my diet?”
5. Fermentable Carbohydrates
Gluten-containing grains, wheat, barely, rye and oats, contain fructan, a type of rapidly fermented carbohydrate. This is a normal digestive process, however, the process of digestion by fermentation results in gas production that can 1) cause discomfort such as abdominal bloating and distention and 2) worsen dysbiosis or small intestinal bacterial overgrowth.
6. Gluten is found in junk foods
The majority of processed foods contain gluten. If you eliminate gluten from your diet, you eliminate a lot of junk foods that your body doesn’t like, thus you feel better. But don’t kid yourself into thinking gluten-free processed foods are any healthier. Flour is flour. Sugar is sugar. Just because it’s a gluten-free cookie doesn’t mean it isn’t a cookie.
Get tested. Thoughtfully consider what the best dietary approach is for you.
I make the assumption that someone tries out a gluten-free diet with the end goal of feeling good, losing weight, looking better, healing the body, achievement of optimal health, etc. If this is the case, then a gluten-free diet is only one piece of the pie. In none of the cases above can someone reach complete wellness with a gluten-free diet alone. You probably will feel better, lose some weight and think a little more clearly on a gluten-free diet…but don’t stop there. There is so much further you can go when you understand why you get results from a gluten-free diet.
Material on this blog is provided for informational purposes only. It is general information that may not apply to you as an individual, and is not a substitute for personalized nutrition or health advice or healthcare. Never disregard medical advice or delay seeking medical care because of something you have read or accessed through this website.