Your gut plays a huge role in your health and wellness, and an increasing amount of evidence is becoming available that links gut health to brain health, mood, and overall wellness.
With that, it’s important to take steps to protect your gut health, and sometimes that means taking a deep dive to figure out what might be making that gut operate at less than its best.
For many Americans, gluten sensitivity (aka nonceliac gluten sensitivity) is an undiagnosed or misdiagnosed underlying issue that doesn’t become apparent until they’ve seen a GI doctor who’s advised them to try dipping their diet into the gluten-free realm.
If you’re looking to explore a gluten-free diet to see if it can help with your gut health, keep reading to learn about what gluten really is, and how for some people, it can help to cut completely.
Before we dive in, we want to highlight that the best thing to do if you suspect gluten sensitivity or intolerance is to see your primary care provider or GI specialist for additional testing and consult, and that it’s also usually best to consult with your healthcare provider before making huge changes like this to your daily health regimen.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a family of proteins found in various grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats. While gluten isn’t an essential part of most grains (that’s how “gluten-free” foods are possible), it does play a crucial role in baking. Anyone who has ever mixed flour with water will immediately understand why gluten was given its name.
The word “gluten” is a 17th-century French word that loosely translates to “sticky substance.” It was derived directly from the Latin version (glutin), which means “glue.” Gluten is why flour and water become so sticky when you mix the two into a batter. That sticky quality can be frustrating to deal with, but it helps baked goods get their shape, and is important for texture and taste.
Is Gluten Bad for You?
In recent years, many misconceptions about gluten have risen (pun intended). The “gluten-free diet” started to catch on in the fitness and weight-watching community, and people automatically assumed that gluten was just inherently unhealthy. While gluten can be an issue for some people, it’s not inherently bad for you.
The human body contains three specific enzymes that help break down food and aid digestion. Amylase breaks down starches and carbs into sugars. Lipases break down lipids (fats and oils) into glycerol and fatty acids. The third is protease, which breaks down proteins into amino acids. Since gluten is a protein, protease is the most involved in its metabolization.
In most cases, protease is excellent at its job and can break down all kinds of protein without trouble. However, it’s not particularly good at breaking down and metabolizing gluten. It’s extremely common for undigested gluten to travel through your stomach to the small intestine.
For most people, this doesn’t cause problems other than the occasional digestive issue like gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea. For others, however, it can trigger a severe reaction in your stomach and immune system.
The medical condition known as celiac disease is a disorder that can cause critical damage to your intestines. The condition causes an intense allergic reaction when the stomach comes into contact with gluten.
The immune system starts to attack an otherwise healthy stomach, leading to various painful and often embarrassing digestive side effects. It could be a sign of celiac disease if you frequently experience abdominal pain, nausea, bloating, gas, constipation, or diarrhea after eating gluten. Some people with celiac also experience immune-response symptoms outside of their digestive tract.
How Do You Know If You Need a Gluten-Free Diet?
Celiac disease isn’t hard to identify — it just requires a few tests. Unfortunately, you’ll need to load up on the gluten in the days before the tests are conducted. It’s the only way to test the response in your body that would indicate celiac.
There are two tests used to diagnose celiac disease:
- The first and less intrusive test is to undergo a serologic test that reviews tissue transglutaminase immunoglobulin A, tissue transglutaminase immunoglobulin G, endomysial antibodies, and deamidated gliadin peptide. In other words, it’s a blood test that tests the level of specific proteins and antibodies in your blood.
- The second and less desirable test involves a biopsy of your small intestine. For this test, a lab technician will insert a fiberoptic tube through the mouth or nose to take a tissue sample from your small intestine. The sample is reviewed for damage that’s usually the result of celiac disease. You probably won’t have to undergo this test unless the first one is positive.
It’s important to note that you can still have issues with gluten even if the test results come back negative.
Even a minor gluten intolerance or sensitivity can result in several side effects that look like celiac disease. In this case, your provider may recommend you try a gluten-free diet for a few weeks to see if your symptoms improve or disappear altogether.
What Does a Gluten-Free Diet Look Like?
Fortunately, gluten is not an essential nutrient, so you don’t have to worry about malnutrition by eliminating it from your diet. Unfortunately, it can be a little more difficult than you might think — you’d be surprised how many foods contain gluten.
Gluten-free diets are something of a distant cousin to the keto diet. The purpose of a keto diet is to cut down on carbs to encourage the body to burn fat for fuel. It’s not a one-to-one comparison, but you’ll essentially follow many of the same rules as the keto diet — natural, whole foods with no added sugars and virtually no grains.
These are a few of the foods that are naturally free of gluten that you can include in your diet:
- Non-canned, undried, non-frozen fruits and vegetables
- Non-processed and non-canned nuts, seeds, lentils, legumes, and beans
- Plain and unflavored milk, cheese, eggs, and yogurt
- Non-processed and unbreaded beef, poultry, and fish
- Water, coffee, tea, and 100 percent fruit juice
Which Foods Should You Avoid on a Gluten-Free Diet?
You can already imagine how challenging it can be to follow a gluten-free diet with such specific limitations. Unfortunately, the challenge can feel harder when you hear more about the foods that often contain gluten.
For a gluten-free diet to work, you’ll need to start thoroughly reviewing the food labels and ingredient list of everything you eat. You already know that anything involving wheat, barley, or rye will almost certainly contain gluten.
These are a few common foods that contain gluten:
- Pasta, noodles, and pizza
- Baked goods such as cakes, doughnuts, cookies, and muffins
- Most types of soups and cereal
- Sauces such as gravy, salad dressings, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, and most marinades
- Food coloring
- Processed meat
- Croutons and panko breadcrumbs
- Pancakes, waffles, and biscuits
- Malted foods such as milkshakes, malt vinegar, and malt extract
- Beer and other similar alcoholic beverages
- Snack foods such as candy, potato chips, crackers, and pretzels
Even things like lipstick, toothpaste, and vitamin supplements can contain gluten. Even if it says “gluten-free” on the label, double-checking is always a good idea, especially if your gluten sensitivity can be triggered if the food came into contact with glutinous foods or is made in a facility that produced glutinous foods.
The 8 Benefits of a Gluten-Free Diet
You don’t have to have gluten intolerance or insensitivity to experience the benefits of a gluten-free diet (though again, we can’t stress how important it is to consult with your healthcare provider before making the change).
These are the eight biggest benefits that can come from a gluten-free (or even gluten-minimized) diet:
Can Eliminate Digestive Distress
The most important benefit is that you may be able to relieve many issues in your digestive tract. The occasional issue with digestion is perfectly normal. The human body operates like a machine, but it’s far from being as efficient as one.
However, removing gluten from your diet might help to reduce the frequency or severity of gas, bloating, nausea, constipation, and diarrhea if you’re gluten-sensitive.
Can Reduce Inflammation
Inflammation plays an important role in keeping the body safe. The immune system uses inflammation to combat harmful stimuli such as toxic compounds, pathogens, and damaged cells. The problem is that too much inflammation (known as chronic inflammation) can start to cause more harm than it prevents.
The joints are especially susceptible to inflammation, and the aches, pains, and stiffness in your knees, wrists, hips, shoulders, and other joints could originate in your stomach. Celiac and gluten intolerance both involve an overactive immune system that floods the system with inflammation when it detects gluten.
Can Give You More Energy
The stomach is an extremely delicate ecosystem that the tiniest infraction can severely disrupt. For example, having too much undigested gluten (with or without an intolerance) can affect your GI system’s ability to function properly. In particular, gluten can cause the GI tract to struggle to absorb iron properly.
It doesn’t take long for an iron deficiency to graduate into full-blown anemia. Fatigue and sluggishness are trademarks of anemia that can make even simple tasks feel impossible.
It’s possible that cutting out gluten can eliminate the hurdles that might be preventing your body from properly absorbing iron (as well as other nutrients). When absorbed properly, these essential nutrients can help your body function properly and maintain sufficient energy levels.
Can Help You Lose Weight
One of the main reasons why gluten-free diets became so popular is that they can be an excellent way to help you lose weight when paired with a proper exercise routine.
Review the list of foods above that contain gluten. Practically all of them are loaded with calories and contribute to weight gain. Replacing highly processed and carb-loaded foods with fresh fruits, vegetables, and lean proteins is a tried and true method of healthy weight management, and the avoidance of gluten can be a good motivator to make these substitutions.
Can Reduce Migraines
The connection between the brain and the gut is well documented. When one is in severe distress, the other is almost certainly negatively impacted.
Headaches and migraines can be common side effects of celiac disease and general gluten intolerance. The stomach and immune system are telling the brain that there may be something extremely wrong. By pressing the “panic button,” so to speak, the brain’s pathways are negatively affected and can result in a migraine.
Can Boost Your Mood
Depression is yet another common side effect of gluten intolerance. When gluten causes the immune system to attack itself, the ensuing confusion and damage your body is causing to itself can devastate your general mood. Not to mention that gut-brain connection we just talked about above.
Not only that, but a lot of foods that contain gluten (processed foods in particular) can have a draining effect on your serotonin levels. Lower levels of this balancing “feel good hormone” can affect your overall mood and mental health.
Can Improve Bone Health
Earlier, we discussed how gluten could affect your stomach’s ability to absorb nutrients such as iron properly. Well, it can also impact your ability to absorb calcium too.
The stomach already struggles to break down and absorb calcium as is. The presence of gluten might be enough to throw off your digestion and result in calcium malabsorption. Over time, a lack of sufficient calcium can often result in weaker bones and medical conditions such as osteoporosis or osteopenia.
Can Clear Up Your Skin
When the autoimmune reactions get triggered by gluten, it releases a massive amount of antibodies into your blood. Eventually, these antibodies can find their way to your skin, which can cause dermatitis herpetiformis (DH). DH affects about 10 percent of people with celiac disease, but can also present in people who only have a sensitivity and not a full-blown intolerance.
In other words, eating gluten when your body can’t tolerate it can result in itchy bumps and blisters like you’d experience during any other allergic reaction. A gluten intolerance can make you much more likely to develop a skin condition involving rashes, eczema, and psoriasis.
Kicking Gluten to the Curb
Trying to remove gluten from your diet is no simple task. There are a lot of foods that naturally contain gluten and even more of them that subtly do, even if just in trace amounts. You’ll need to be careful about your food and double-check the ingredient list on everything. It may require a lot of sacrifices to get rid of gluten, but it’s the only way to experience the benefits listed above if you have a gluten sensitivity or intolerance.
Chances are that you’ll have to rewrite your diet from scratch. Fortunately, MOSH bars contain no gluten, so you can add them to your new list. Sacrificing gluten doesn’t necessarily mean that you also have to sacrifice flavor.
You can try the new Cookie Dough Crunch bar to get a gluten-free fix of cookie flavor for your sweet tooth. A gluten-free life might be hard, but it can be well worth the trouble if your gut (and your doctor) call for it!
Key Factors for Absorbing Calcium Supplements | American Bone Health
Iron Deficiency Anemia | Mayo Clinic
Persistent Iron Deficiency Anemia in Patients with Celiac Disease Despite a Gluten-Free Diet | PMC
Inflammatory Responses and Inflammation-Associated Diseases in Organs | PMC
Sources of Gluten | Celiac Disease Foundation
Is It True That Humans Can't Properly Metabolize Gluten? | Forbes
Digestive Enzymes and Digestive Enzyme Supplements | Johns Hopkins Medicine
Why Are So Many People Going Gluten-free? | Piedmont Healthcare
Going Gluten Free? | News in Health