Dr. Steve Long
What is gluten anyway?

Gluten is a sticky protein commonly found in grains. Biggest offenders are rye, wheat and barley. It is found in most types of cereals and in many types of bread. Not all foods from the grain family contain gluten. Grains that that do not have gluten include wild rice, corn, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, quinoa, teff, soybeans and sunflower seeds. Gluten is also found in some unexpected ways as well. It is used as stabilizing agent or thickener in products like ice-cream, soy sauce and ketchup.

Gluten is highly elastic and strong, making it the core of bread dough. It is the gluten in dough which allows it to be kneaded and risen. Unfortunately, some people have adverse reactions when they eat gluten, particularly wheat gluten, which is accompanied with other compounds found naturally in wheat.

What is the problem with gluten?

Gluten sensitivity causes extensive damage to the lining of the small intestine which houses up to 70 percent of the body’s immune system.

With gluten sensitivity tissues in the immune system that produce antibodies become damaged. Antibodies are made in the human body in response to invaders. They are extremely important for killing these invaders especially in mucosal tissue such as the sinuses, eyes, mouth, respiratory tract, digestive tract and urinary tract.

And since these areas of the body are actually in direct contact to the outside world, its extremely important these areas stay well protected by our immune system. But if the tissues that produce the antibodies are destroyed, then there are not enough antibodies to help keep the invaders in check.

Following are the symptoms of health complications resulting due to gluten intolerance: Gaining fat or losing weight; malnutrition and deficiency of iron; joint pain; nervousness; inflammation over skin; headache; fatigue; anger and loss of temper; impotency; irregular menstrual cycle; abdominal cramps; slow growth of baby; and dental problems.

While this is counter-intuitive, digestive symptoms are less common symptoms of gluten sensitivity. Digestive symptoms are often accompanied by the familiar triad of excessive fatigue, depression and weight gain.

Digestive symptoms that might be seen as the symptoms of gluten sensitivity are abdominal pain, bloating, cramping, weight gain or weight loss, constipation, diarrhea, alternating constipation and diarrhea.

These symptoms, if any are present, are those commonly found in many other gastrointestinal disorders and are, again, rarely attributed to gluten sensitivity. Even when patients have chronic digestive complaints and no cause can be found, rarely is gluten sensitivity ever suspected.

Gluten intolerance, once thought rare, is getting overdue attention. In 2003 just 40,000 Americans had been diagnosed with celiac disease; today, its 110,000  and, if everyone with the disease were diagnosed it would be 3 million, according to Alessio Fasano, medical director of the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research in Baltimore.

Celiac disease: When symptoms are more serious

More serious gluten intolerance is called celiac disease. That’s when gluten actually triggers the body’s immune system. When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the villi in the intestines  tiny, finger-like projections in the small intestine that absorb the nutrients from food. For this reason its considered an autoimmune disease.

Celiac disease is not just a disease of the gut, says Shelley Case, R.D., nutrition consultant and author of Gluten Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide. Its a multi-system, multi-symptom disease with serious implications.

Celiac disease is linked to malnutrition that can lead to anemia, osteoporosis, depression, behavioral problems and stunted growth in children, among other problems. People who have celiac disease may also have other autoimmune conditions, such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.

Gluten free diet

Several grains and starch sources are considered acceptable for a gluten-free diet. The most frequently used are corn, potatoes, rice and tapioca (derived from cassava). Other grains and starch sources generally considered suitable for gluten free diets include amaranth, arrowroot, millet, montina, lupin, quinoa, sweet potato, taro, teff, chia seed and yam. Various types of bean, soybean and nut flours are sometimes used in gluten-free products to add protein and dietary fiber. In spite of its name, buckwheat is not related to wheat; pure buckwheat is considered acceptable for a gluten-free diet, although many commercial buckwheat products are actually mixtures of wheat and buckwheat flours and thus not acceptable. Gram flour, derived from chickpeas, is also gluten-free (this is not the same as Graham flour made from wheat).

People wishing to follow a completely gluten free diet must also take into consideration the ingredients of any over-the-counter or prescription medications and vitamins. Also, cosmetics such as lipstick, lip balms and lip gloss may contain gluten and need to be investigated before use. Here is a simple list of foods to consider.

Don’t eat: Wheat and all its forms, including semolina, spelt, kamut and rye; barley; oat bran; wheat germ; bran; graham, gluten or durum flour.

Do eat: Amaranth; quinoa; buckwheat; popcorn; cornmeal (polenta and tortillas); millet; breads, cereals, crackers and pasta made of corn, rice, potato, arrowroot, tapioca, sago, flax and hominy.

What about oats? Oats for celiac disease has been controversial, but recent research has given oats a thumbs up. The problem is possible contamination of oats with other gluten-containing grains. Pure oats  those not contaminated by other grains  are recommended by a majority of celiac organizations in Canada and the United States. You can also find gluten free oats in Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods.

Where should I go for good gluten free recipes? The web is full of great sites to find recipes but these are some good ones right off the top.

• Livingwithout.com

• glutenfreegoddess.blogspot.com

• glutenfreegirl.blogspot.com

• glutenfreemommy.com.

There is a lot of conversation that many health problems are coming from our diet. Often times eliminating something like gluten from your diet can be extremely difficult. But if you make the effort to cut back on the cookies, crackers, breads and pasta you’ll be surprised how much better you and your family will feel.