Gluten Intolerance 101

Semi-disclaimer: I am not a doctor, but it turns out that most doctors know little about gluten intolerance and would be of little help anyway. Sadly, after reading this post, you’ll probably be better informed than your doctor. The information that follows is what I have learned from my fairly extensive research. I’ll present it in a way I hope is simple yet detailed enough to yield understanding.  I urge you to do your own research on the topic (I’ll provide some helpful links), and find a doctor who listens to and helps you.

If you read my story, you know I’m gluten intolerant. But what does that mean?

Gluten intolerance, sometimes called gluten sensitivity, is a very common disease that affects at least 1 in every 7 people, though some estimates say as much as 40% of people are gluten intolerant. Gluten is the protein found in various types of wheatryebarley, and a few rarely eaten grains, such as spelt and kamut. (Oats are naturally gluten-free, however most become contaminated with gluten in the field or in grain-processing plants. Unless the package certifies that the oats are gluten-free, assume they are not.) If you are gluten intolerant, and there is a good chance you are, gluten will make you very, very ill.

The source of the problem for those who are intolerant is that the body does not recognize gluten as food. Instead, the body sees it as a dangerous, foreign invader, similar to a bacteria or virus. And what happens when bacteria or viruses enter the body? The immune system attacks it.

This is basically how it works: You eat a bite of wheat bread. When that bread gets to your small intestine, antibodies start to attack the gluten in it, because they see it as something dangerous, rather than food. (Most of the immune system is housed in the digestive track, which makes sense, considering that most harmful things enter our body that way.) Each bite you take adds more and more gluten that your body wants to attack and destroy.

When the immune system attacks something, it creates inflammation, which is a perfectly normal process. The body is able to handle small amounts of inflammation for short periods of time. But imagine if you ingest gluten every day. That’s going to create a lots of chronic inflammation! And that’s very bad, because it can lead to serious issues, such as heart disease.

The first thing to get inflamed is your small intestine. And this is how the problem spreads to other parts of your body. Constant inflammation of your intestines will lead to several things. First, you may experience some digestive issues, though 8 out of 9 people with gluten intolerance do not have digestive symptoms (which is why they often don’t realize that their health problems are being caused by something they are eating).  Note: Celiac disease is only one type of gluten intolerance. Most people who have gluten intolerance do not have celiac disease, but all people who have celiac disease are gluten intolerant. It’s like saying that not all people who own cars own a Honda, but all people who own a Honda own a car. With celiac disease, not only do the antibodies attack the gluten, but they attack the villi of the small intestine (making it an autoimmune disease), causing extensive damage. Unfortunately, many doctors don’t realize that even if you don’t have celiac, you can still be gluten intolerant and have the same serious health problems.

Second, the inflammation is damaging to the intestines, making them unable to adequately absorb vitamins and nutrients. Many gluten intolerant people are especially deficient in Vitamins D and B12, folate, iron, and calcium. Not having these and other essentials will lead to many problems, because your body needs them to maintain normal function and good health. For example, low Vitamin D will cause bone and joint problems, hair loss, acne, and even depression and anxiety. Not having enough iron can cause fatigue, an enlarged spleen, and a drop in hemoglobin, the molecule that carries oxygen throughout the blood. And the list goes on and on. If you take supplements for these vitamins and minerals and continue to eat gluten, your intestines will still not be able to absorb enough because the damage continues.

Third, the damaged, inflamed intestines now become permeable. The cells that make up the intestine are no longer forming a tight wall. Instead, the constant inflammation has caused tiny spaces to open up between the cells, a condition known as leaky gut (yuck!). Now, various things start leaking into your blood from your intestine, including gluten. And this is where things start to go crazy.

When gluten gets into your blood stream, the antibodies in your blood start attacking it, causing even more inflammation. So imagine gluten getting into your muscles or brain. The antibodies chase it there and attack it, causing inflammation in these places, which is not a good thing. So now gluten is all throughout your body, and  your immune system is attacking it all throughout your body. Because the gluten protein is very similar in structure to proteins in your own body, the frenzied immune system may become confused and begin to attack the body itself, which is how gluten can trigger autoimmune diseases. In addition to the other problems you now have, your overworked immune system begins to weaken, making it more difficult for you to fight off other invaders, such as viruses.

The adrenal glands, located on top of the kidneys, produce several hormones, including cortisol, which helps cool down inflammation in the body. However, they too can only do so much. Their first function is to fight inflammation, so they’ll put less effort into producing the other hormones (which can lead to conditions such as menstrual irregularities), and focus on the cortisol instead. But that can only go on for so long, and eventually they can’t keep up with the inflammation either.

So let’s look at just one aspect of the damage that can be caused by gluten if you are intolerant – joint problems, for example. First, your body is not absorbing enough Vitamin D (and other essentials) to maintain joint health, so already your joints are not perfect. Then, blood carries gluten to these joints, and the antibodies there fight it, causing inflammation. Soon, autoimmune antibodies start attacking your joints, causing more damage and inflammation. On top of everything else, your adrenal glands cannot keep up with all this inflammation, and so there is not enough cortisol to bring it down. And that’s just one part of the body. Add to that your heart, liver, skin, reproductive system, nerves, hair, and any other part or system of the body.

There are many details to learn about gluten intolerance, more than I can adequately discuss in this post. I recommend you read the book The Gluten Effect. Don’t be put off by the silly cover; it’s a great book that explains the disease very well. You can also read the authors’ blog and watch their Youtube videos.

Here are the most important things to remember about gluten intolerance:

  • Gluten intolerance is a very common, very serious disease. If left untreated, it can completely destroy your health. Just because the treatment is a fairly simple dietary change doesn’t mean that the disease is not extremely dangerous.
  • The unique mechanics of the disease cause a vast array of symptoms (there are more than 200 that can be linked to gluten), which often seem unrelated on the surface. It is very common for those with gluten intolerance to have a dozen symptoms which seem to have nothing to do with each other. You can have anything from hair loss to swollen feet, and everything in between. Even if you feel or notice nothing, you can still have significant damage to your body. The combined immune reactions, inflammation, and vitamin and mineral deficiencies will destroy your health.
  • You can take certain tests to find out if you are gluten intolerant (which you can find information about in the above links). However, the tests are not 100% accurate and even if the tests come back negative, your body may still have reactions to gluten. The only sure way is to stop eating gluten for a lengthy period of time (as well as address any vitamin and mineral deficiencies you may have) and see if the symptoms resolve.
  • If you are gluten intolerant, you must stop eating gluten for the rest of your life, or your health will deteriorate. Read this to learn how to eat gluten-free in order to heal yourself.