Aside from Celiac Disease, (an autoimmune condition where the body attacks itself in response to gluten) is going gluten-free really necessary for us all? Can we live a full life and prosper with our whole wheat toast in tow?
The risk of leaky gut goes up
In early 2000, Dr. Alessio Fasano demonstrated through his research that all people develop some level of gut permeability or “leaky gut” any time gluten is ingested (1). Yes, ALL people, regardless of whether we are genetically at risk for Celiac Disease or not. Leaky gut refers to increased and unwanted intestinal permeability amongst the tight junctions between each cell of the intestinal tract. Dr. Fasano identified that this process of ‘opening of the tight junctions’ is regulated by a protein called zonulin. Gliadin (a component of gluten) activates zonulin release in epithelial cells (5). Why do we care about this? Properly functioning tight junctions are required for optimal absorption and utilization of nutrients in your gastrointestinal tract (1). In addition, zonulin has been linked as a biomarker of many chronic conditions including autoimmune disease, nervous system diseases and cancers due to leaky gut being the proposed root cause (2).
Opioid-like effects on the gut
Other research with Autism spectrum disorders has proposed that the gluteomorphins or opioid-like molecules formed from the gliadin protein component of gluten are contributing to leaky gut (6). This hypothesis links leaky gut as a potential root cause behind autism and other behavioral disorders in children due to the direct link between our gut and brain functionality. Gluteomorphins are also the reason why some people feel worse at first when they eliminate gluten-think: addiction withdrawal symptoms.
Increased exposure to Glyphosate
The common practice of desiccation and/or ripening of wheat with glyphosate (the weed killer in RoundUp used by Monsanto*) started about 15+ years ago to increase crop yields on single crop farms (3,8). This rise has ensured that glyphosate residues are present in the majority of the non-organic wheat supply and thus a large percentage of the processed foods in this country. Glyphosate has been documented as a zonulin stimulator (3). Therefore, ingestion of glyphosate through our food supply puts us at a higher risk of gut permeability and autoimmune/chronic disease (3). Not only that, glyphosate is now being linked to multiple forms of cancer (7). This all probably leaves you wondering, is it the gluten or the glyphosate? Potentially both in terms of Dr. Fasano’s research and what we now know about glyphosate. It also is important to note that the use of glyphosate on wheat crops has risen in tandem with the rise in celiac disease (3). Glyphosate risk isn’t only high in wheat-based foods, it is highly present in dozens of mass-produced crops in this country including corn, soy and sugar beets as well as oats, almonds, and beans (3).
What is the take home message here?
For those of us with any sort of digestive problems, autoimmune disease or chronic inflammatory conditions it is a good idea to do a trial for at least a month and remove gluten (in addition to GMO foods). Play close attention to whether you notice a change in your symptoms.
But what if I really don’t want to give up my gluten?!
For the generally healthy person, you are likely getting some form glyphosate exposure whenever you consume gluten (and other mass-produced crops in this country for that matter). Therefore, eat the best gluten you can-organic einkorn wheat is just about the cleanest source you can choose. Choosing gluten-based foods that are sprouted or fermented further increases digestibility of the food making it easier on your stomach and intestines. Organic sourdough bread or sprouted bread made locally or from a baker using simple ingredients you know, would be a better choice than the bread you buy from the supermarket shelves. Whole grain and organic forms of gluten such as farro, wheat germ, bran, spelt, bulgur (in tabouli) would also be more nutrient-dense choices. Processed, packaged forms of gluten such as snack foods, crackers, breads or baked goods laden with sugar would be the gluten foods we encourage you to avoid. What can you do to reduce glyphosate exposure? Eat organic and non-gmo (genetically modified organisms) foods (soy, canola, and corn tend to be the highest in GMOs), eat locally and get to know your farmers and their farming practices including what they use to fertilize the soil! This article extremely was helpful for giving advice on reducing glyphosate exposure and damage: https://www.alexfergus.com/blog/how-to-protect-yourself-from-glyphosated
Better yet-grow your own food! Then you have the autonomy to dictate what goes on the produce and in the soil. You will also expose your microbiome to good bacteria and soil based organisms by getting your hands in the dirt!
- Hollon, Justin, et al. “Effect of Gliadin on Permeability of Intestinal Biopsy Explants from Celiac Disease Patients and Patients with Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.” Nutrients, MDPI, 27 Feb. 2015, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25734566.
- Fasano, Alessio. “Zonulin and Its Regulation of Intestinal Barrier Function: the Biological Door to Inflammation, Autoimmunity, and Cancer.” Physiological Reviews, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2011, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21248165.
- Samsel, Anthony, and Stephanie Seneff. “Glyphosate, Pathways to Modern Diseases II: Celiac Sprue and Gluten Intolerance.” Interdisciplinary Toxicology, Slovak Toxicology Society SETOX, Dec. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3945755/.
- Rej, Anupam, and David Surendran Sanders. “Gluten-Free Diet and Its ‘Cousins’ in Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” Nutrients, MDPI, 11 Nov. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6266983/.
- Clemente MG, De Virgiliis S, Kang JS, Macatagney R, Musu MP, Di Pierro MR, Drago S, Congia M, Fasano A. Early effects of gliadin on enterocyte intracellular signaling involved in intestinal barrier function. Gut 52: 218 –223, 2003.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12524403
- Christison GW, Ivany K (2006). “Elimination diets in autism spectrum disorders: any wheat amidst the chaff?”. J Dev Behav Pediatr. 27 (2 Suppl 2): S162–71. doi:10.1097/00004703-200604002-00015. PMID 16685183.
- IARC . IARC monographs on the evaluation of carcinogenic risks to humans, volume 112. Glyphosate.2016.
*Monsanto was bought out by Bayer and they have rebranded RoundUp in a new herbicide called Liberty Link