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Is Gluten Bad for Me? Bad for Everyone?

If you haven’t been living under a rock for the past few years, you know that gluten has become something of a villain in the food and nutrition world.

Different people have said that this small protein, which is found in a number of grains, causes everything from rashes to indigestion to unwanted weight gain. This is why many people who care about health want gluten to be taken out of the diet. They thought that if they did this, they would have better health, lose weight, and have a more fun life in general.

On the surface, this all seems like an easy thing to do…. Just stay away from gluten, and you’ll be as healthy as can be.

The bad news is that gluten is found in a lot of popular and delicious foods. Gluten is found in bread, pasta, cereal, baked goods, and even most beers, which is why most people don’t want to stop eating gluten.

But even though there are many who give reasonable reasons for staying away from gluten, can we really believe them? Does gluten really hurt your health as much as some say it does?

Well, When we look at the science, we see that gluten can either be really bad for your health or have no effect on it at all. The important thing is to figure out which group YOU as an individual belong to.

Why is gluten seen as a bad thing?

We don’t know why gluten got a bad name, but it seems to have started out as a good thing. It could have started with a simple link between eating foods with gluten and getting fat.

Gluten is found in many foods that are high in carbs. Even though the reason has changed over time, carbs are now thought to be the main cause of the obesity epidemic we have today. But the rise in Celiac Disease cases is what most likely pushed people to think of gluten as a bad thing.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks and destroys the small intestine’s villi. When gluten is eaten, this kind of autoimmune reaction happens. The more gluten the small intestine is exposed to, the more the villi get smoothed down. This makes it hard to digest, since those villi are what move the contents of the intestine through the small intestine. If the person doesn’t get treatment, they can have severe pain, diarrhoea, problems absorbing or not getting enough nutrients, and even get other autoimmune diseases.

Like some other ‘new’ diseases, Celiac Disease has gotten a lot of attention in recent years. After hearing about the disease, many people think that gluten in their food is a problem for them as well and for everyone in the world.

Even though, if the take the USA an exmaple, only 1 in 100 people have Celiac Disease [1], this is still the case.

If they stop eating gluten, they might lose weight. Or they might have felt better because they thought it would make them feel better. No matter what, being gluten-free has become a synonym for being healthier and better off.

Gut Hole for Everyone

Many experts say it’s interesting that gluten problems might not just be limited to Celiac Disease. Some doctors have also written books that try to explain how gluten might be bad for your health.

Researchers have found something interesting about this subject. When gluten is eaten, a protein called zonulin is turned up in the intestines [5]. The tight joints in the small intestine are controlled by this protein. When there is more zonulin, the space between the tight junctions gets bigger [5]. Based on this fact, it is possible that gluten could make the gut less tight, which could lead to health problems. But just because gluten makes your body make more zonulin doesn’t mean it will make your gut more permeable. We still need to figure out how much zonulin is turned up.

Researchers looked at this link by putting gluten/gliadin into ex vivo intestinal cells and layers [3]. In a nutshell, from the conclusion it seems like  the door was opened a little bit to the idea that gluten could be bad for humans.

But before we jump to that conclusion, we need to keep in mind that this was NOT done in real life. So, these results can’t be used to predict what would happen in the daily life of a human.

In other words, we can’t be sure that this is how the cells in the intestines would act in a normal human body. More research is certainly needed, but this does provide some guidance on where to go.

Taking into account other stressors

Even though the results we talked about above should be taken with a grain of salt, let’s take a look at them anyway.

If we take the results of the permeability test at face value, it is possible that gluten could cause some problems. Over time, these small changes in permeability could add up and maybe get worse. In fact, this is a symptom of autoimmune diseases. Researchers have found that autoimmune diseases can be caused in part by how well the gut seals itself [4]. Gut permeability alone, though, is not enough to cause autoimmune dysfunction. Other things must also be present.

In theory, repeated exposure to gluten and other stressors could make autoimmune diseases more likely by making the gut more permeable. But this doesn’t mean that it will definitely happen. In fact, being around gluten probably won’t cause a problem on its own unless you have Celiac Disease.

But you might want to think about the fact that gluten isn’t the only thing that makes us stressed. There may be other foods or additives that can also make the gut more permeable in a similar way.

In the same way, heavy metals and environmental toxins amongst others, can put too much stress on our bodies.

When you add these stressors together, there is a storm that could cause problems over time. This is just one more reason why we need to take care of our health in a lot of different ways. In other words, if we want to be as strong as we can control, against these nutritional and environmental stressors, we need to eat well, exercise enough, and get enough sleep.

Conclusion

Gluten is one of the most misunderstood matters about nutrition right now. Several bloggers on health & fitness recommend living a gluten-free life. Most of the time, they mean well, but their ideas may not always be based on science. If you have Celiac Disease, gluten is definitely bad for your health. But there aren’t as many people with Celiac Disease as most people think.

Gluten seems to have a small effect on gut permeability in people who don’t have Celiac Disease. This is another reason why some people will push for a diet without gluten. But for normal, healthy people, the increase in gut permeability may not be very important.

Also, in vivo clinical trials have not yet shown that this link is true with gut permeability. Therefore, those with healthy and robust immune systems are probably safe to eat gluten in moderation. So make sure you take care of yourself in every way if you want to occasionally enjoy a piece of Maltese bread or a small qassata.

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