A gut health contains healthy bacteria and immune cells that ward off infectious agents like bacteria, viruses and fungi. Every now and then the mainstream news creates what I call a teachable moment. The majority of Americans could care less about a subject as seemingly obtuse as gluten intolerance. Then along comes a headline indicating beer intake by women can cause gluten-induced autoimmune disease, and all of a sudden, a significantly larger portion of America has its ears open. A companion study has linked gluten sensitivity to depression, anxiety, and suicidal ideation. This means a whole lot more than the 1% of Americans with Celiac disease should at least understand something about this topic and how it may relate to their health.
Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, and rye. Gliadin is one of the components of gluten. It is highly resistant to digestion and capable of producing an inflammatory immune system reaction, especially in those with a genetic susceptibility. There are a variety of types of gluten/gliadin. Some are more potentially immune-reactive than others, even amongst various types of wheat. Gluten is also in oats and rice, although the structure of gluten/gliadin in these foods are not as reactive as wheat. However, once an autoimmune problem gets going, your immune system can cross-react with any form of gluten/gliadin, thereby expanding your potential sensitivity to more foods.
Gluten has many desirable properties from the food manufacturing point of view. It is responsible for the rising and final shape of any baked wheat product. It also gives bread products a chewy property and is useful to stabilize the final ingredient mixture in any processed food concoction. Thus, gluten is typically added in one form or another to a majority of processed foods. The FDA maintains that gluten is safe in any amount in any food. Because of this, we have a situation where independent of wheat consumption, individuals consume massive amounts of dietary gluten when eating processed foods.
Newer science shows that various types of gluten/gliadin may trigger different types of immune system reactions. The Celiac issue is an autoimmune reaction in your gut. The psoriasis issue is an autoimmune reaction in your skin. There are also reactions that take place in your brain. While any one person could have all three of these they often only have one or two. While blatant autoimmune reactions may only affect 1% of the general population, a more pressing issue is that immune system dysfunction relating to this topic may affect as much as 40% of the population. This means that virtually any digestive complaint, skin complaint, or mental health issue could have gluten sensitivity as part of its problem. This could be 10% of the problem or 90% of the problem and will vary from person to person.
In the current beer study, 82,869 women taking part in Nurses’ Health Study II were tracked from 1991 to 2005. During that time women who had five or more regular beers per week had a 130% increased risk for developing autoimmune psoriasis. Light beer did not cause the problem, nor did any other form of alcohol. Regular beer is typically fermented using barley as the starch source. This leads to a higher level of gluten in regular beer in comparison to any other form of alcohol. This study has far-reaching public health implications that extend beyond beer consumption.
In another study in the same journal, researchers reported much higher rates of anxiety (31%), depression (39%), and suicidal feelings (44%) in individuals with psoriasis. This means that the likely cause of psoriasis is linked to something else going on inside one’s body that is also causing brain stress.
These studies correlate to a much broader range of research that has been going on over the past decade and is too extensive to review in any detail. Simply put, there is a sliding scale between optimal health and autoimmune disease. There are many shades of grey that appear before the full-blown manifestation of an autoimmune problem like psoriasis or Celiac. Such problems involve various degrees of immune system malfunction. Consequent inflammation that may not end up with a diagnosable autoimmune problem but certainly can cause a significant decline in health.
What the data shows is that any ongoing digestive problem, any ongoing mental health struggle, or any ongoing skin problem (including eczema or dermatitis) is possibly linked to the excessive intake of gluten. The data shows that such gluten sensitivity causes inflammation on the lining of your digestive tract as well as the lining of your brain (blood brain barrier) in such as way that these important barriers become “leaky.” This means that inflammatory trash from your gut can leak back into your body and wreak havoc, as well as cross your blood brain barrier and interfere with your mental health. Your skin will be called upon as a back up system to get rid of the excess trash, and if your skin is excessively stressed, then any skin problem is possible.
If an individual believes they may have a problem in this area, the first thing to do is to avoid regular beer and all processed foods, including condiments like ketchup (that typically use gluten and don’t report it on the label in any clear way). You can drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how gluten may be labeled only to find that it is often not labeled at all. Minimizing processed foods in your diet is a basic tip for good health and this is just one more reason to do it.
In the field of alternative health there are many gluten-paranoid health professionals. They want everyone to never eat wheat. They are typically trying to superimpose their own health issues on everyone else. Wheat is a wonderful source of nutrition and fiber – as well as potent isoprenoids that are clearly associated with longevity and overall good health.
On the other hand, I have no objection to someone cutting back on or eliminating dietary gluten for a period of time if it improves their skin, brain, and/or gut health. Doing so is especially relevant to individuals with chronic problems in one or more of these areas.
At the same time your goal should not be to become a dietary cripple who now must live in fear of gluten. You can help heal your leaky gut with nutrients like glutamine, N-acetyl-glucosamine, acidophilus, extra dietary fiber, immune-filtered whey peptides, and a variety of other strategies. You can reduce the leakiness of your gut and brain with nutrients like quercetin and grape seed extract. It may take a month or two (or even longer) to straighten out your digestive environment. Unless you have a true genetic issue with gluten, then you should be able to handle a reasonable amount of gluten in healthy foods, and not have problems.
The proof is always in the pudding, so pay attention and learn your limits. The gluten sensitivity issue is far more relevant to health than most people think. Understanding the issue properly will help you to attend to a problem instead of going overboard trying to fix it.