I went gluten-free a little over a year ago. More than one person thought I was crazy, but since then I no longer have brain fog (that feeling of rusty steel wool scratching around my head while I'm trying to think), bloating, heart palpitations, or dizziness after eating things like pancakes, French toast, and pizza.
I've heard gluten-free eating called a “fad”. One recent article in a well-known traditional foods journal called it a “gluten-free craze” that lacks common sense, hurts the wheat industry, and randomly condemns an entire food group. The article also came pretty close to accusing parents who put their children on gluten-free diets of committing dietary child abuse.
Those words hung over my head like a dark, angry cloud. I'd encouraged my adolescent daughter to join me in going gluten-free. Was eating gluten-free really just the latest health panacea? Are the gluten-free foods spilling from grocery store shelves there only to appease customers lacking common sense?
The journal article author placed doubts where there had been none before. Did I simply condemn an entire food group by going gluten-free? Was I swept up in a lot of hype?
These were some of the questions that caused me to carefully examine my choices. They also brought up new questions: Are there other symptoms of gluten intolerance besides gastro-intestinal disturbances? Is a medical test required for it to be socially acceptable to eat gluten-free foods? Most importantly, was I harming my child?
In this post I will share the reflections, research, and critical thinking that resulted from my intense soul-searching during the past year and a half.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is the main protein in wheat, barley, and rye. Wheat relatives such as spelt, kamut, triticale, emmer, and einkorn also contain gluten. It is a stretchy protein that gives breads a fabulous texture and allows them to rise and hold their shape.
Gluten sensitivity is characterized by the commonly understood painful intestinal symptoms, but also many other seemingly unrelated ones. According to Dr. Tom O’Bryan, for every gluten sensitive patient with the typical gastro-intestinal symptoms, there are eight patients with no GI symptoms.
Gluten sensitivity may appear on the skin as dermatitis or psoriasis, it may appear in muscle inflammation such as myositis, it may appear in the brain as imbalanced neurotransmitters, Schizophrenia, ADHD or even loss of coordination or balance; or it could appear in the nerves as carpal tunnel or neuralgia. There are even more places this sensitivity could manifest. The most well-known type of gluten sensitivity is Celiac Disease.
Celiac Disease is more common than most people realize, affecting an estimated 1 in 100. I hope no one would accuse someone with Celiac Disease as lacking common sense or getting swept up in a fad. Yet in spite of being well known, Celiac is still difficult to diagnose with symptoms ranging from typical gastro-intestinal distress and diarrhea to constipation to osteoporosis. (Osteoporosis is so commonly linked with Celiac that some scientists feel anyone diagnosed with osteoporosis should automatically be screened for Celiac.) According to this source, most cases of Celiac Disease remain undiagnosed, so these people are going through life with sub-par health and they don’t even know why. Also alarming is the fact that children with Celiac, diagnosed or not, have a three times higher risk of depression and death than children without Celiac.
Still, 1 in 100 is just 1%. Does that warrant the 28% of Americans who buy gluten-free products from a booming $10 billion industry? I kept digging for answers. As I suspected, there are more gluten-related disorders than just the familiar Celiac Disease. Recent studies show that a separate condition of gluten sensitivity also exists and is also going undiagnosed. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity affects as many as 10 percent of the population. (source)
The causes for this gluten sensitivity are not as clear-cut as Celiac. Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity appears to stem from not only a genetic tendency, but also as a result of modern hybridization of wheat, genetically modified foods, over use of gluten as a food additive in processed foods, toxins in the environment, unbalanced hormones, intestinal infections and other auto-immune diseases. In fact, most of the western world is at risk for developing gluten-sensitivity when you consider these cause factors.
Typical symptoms of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) include headache, joint/muscle pain, numbness, skin rash, history of food allergies from infancy, dermatitis, depression, foggy mind, anemia, anxiety, and irritable bowel. It also seems to affect females more than males. (source)
In addition to gluten, many people are sensitive to wheat germ agglutinin which can cause inflammation; or lectins (apparently anyone with type O blood is sensitive to wheat lectins which cause their blood to clump); or wheat amylase trypsin inhibitors which elicit strong immune system responses; or not enough of the right kinds of good bacteria in their gut; or inability to produce enough stomach acid (HCl) or digestive enzymes – there are so many sides to this debate it’s hard to know where to stop or start. So I turned where I always turn when I need grounding in common sense, real food advice – with Nourishing Traditions.
Genetic or Epigenetic?
Nourishing Traditions jump-started my real food journey more than seven years ago. I’ve read it cover-to-cover at least twice and some sections dozens of times. In it, Sally Fallon and Mary Enig state that casein and gluten are the two most difficult proteins to digest and it is because of this that traditional cultures always soaked or sprouted their grains and fermented/cultured their dairy. They also note that gluten intolerance runs in families with alcoholism, arthritis, Down’s Syndrome, Schizophrenia and dementia.
Whoa — stop — having also read Dr. Natasha Campbell-McBride’s landmark book Gut and Psychology Syndrome, the alarm bells went off. Those families are classic “GAPS” families. While these may seem like genetic issues running in families, they are actually epigenetic.
It’s the age-old Nature vs. Nurture question. In other words, there is something in the environment of these families that is promoting these serious health issues, and the fact that gluten intolerance runs in tandem with the rest gave me the key to unlocking the puzzle: Leaky gut is at the root of all of these conditions.
This means that good candidates for gluten-free diets are anyone with a damaged digestive tract, auto-immune disease or any of the GAPS-related disorders such as ADHD, autism spectrum, learning disorders, multiple courses of antibiotics for chronic conditions, depression, OCD, arthritis or digestive disorders.
Why is a healthy digestive tract so important to eating wheat/gluten? For that answer I returned to Dr. Tom O’Bryan. He illustrates the situation this way:
Imagine the digestive tract as being lined with a layer of cheesecloth. Food gets digested down into molecules small enough to slip through the tiny holes of the cheesecloth and get transported into the rest of the body for fuel and nourishment. However, gluten always causes a rip in the cheesecloth whenever it passes through. People with strong, healthy immune systems can repair that hole easily, especially if that wheat was prepared with traditional methods like sourdough or sprouting. But people whose digestive tracts or immune systems are compromised in any way cannot repair those holes as quickly.
Maybe they are taking antibiotics, maybe they are taking pain killers of some kind (including aspirin and ibuprofen), maybe they are elderly or very young — any number of reasons really — and so they eat toast for breakfast (rip), sandwich for lunch (rip rip) and pasta for dinner (rip rip rrriiipp). Over time those tears in the cheesecloth become so large and so numerous that all kinds of undigested food can get through, plus any toxins that were carried in on the food, pollen, viruses… It all leaks into the body without being small enough and safe enough to actually be there. The body sounds an alarm for foreign invaders and sets up an immune system response. This is where we get food allergies, inflammation, brain dysfunction and so much more — just from unrepaired tears in the lining of our digestive tract.
Healing Through Food
This is where healing diets such as GAPS or the Specific Carbohydrate Diet (SCD) come into play. By eliminating difficult-to-digest foods as well as focusing on healing the lining and rebuilding the beneficial gut flora, these diets bring relief to hundreds and hundreds of people every year. Done well, the GAPS diet can allow some people to eat well-prepared grains again. Others find those foods still cause flare-ups, although not in the debilitating way they used to. They may not be Celiac, but they still must avoid gluten.
Knowing whether or not you have a leaky digestive tract is a good place to start. There are several online quizzes you can take that give you an idea. This is a good one.
If you find out you have leaky gut, you need to take steps to heal and repair it, and eliminating gluten (and possibly all grains) until you are well again may be the direction you need to go. These two online courses focus specifically on gut healing protocols and each is led by a nutritional therapist: Heal Your Gut and the GAPS Class.
Once you are healthy again, you must educate yourself on the safe way to prepare grains so you don’t cause new injury. Traditional Cooking School membership (especially the Fundamentals module) can show you how more about traditional grain preparation methods.
It appears the bottom line is that anyone with a normally functioning immune system CAN eat gluten (wheat, barley, rye), but anyone with any kind of compromised immune system needs to be cautious. Each person’s immune system is as unique as their fingerprint, so each person needs to make their own choice about whether gluten is right or not for them.
Which brings me back to my initial reasons for going gluten-free. In spite of eating a stellar, whole foods, traditionally prepared diet for the last five years, I could not overcome a lifetime of uninformed choices. I struggled with physical and mental symptoms of leaky gut, and it wasn’t until going gluten-free that I really began to find relief.
It hasn’t been instantaneous either. Baby steps better describe my journey now. My family finds humor in all of this: I’m a traditional food blogger with a DVD on how to prepare nourishing breads yet I’ve been gluten-free for over a year.
My husband’s recent birthday gave us a chance to laugh at it all when he said “I want real bread with real gluten in it for my birthday dinner!” It was also an opportunity to test how we were doing. I used Red Fife wheat (a landrace/heritage variety) to make a four day fermented artisan loaf which we ate spread with plenty of butter and olive oil along with our Italian pot roast casserole.
My daughter said she felt fine, and I was pleased to find out my symptoms were much less drastic. She feels she is ready to begin adding back wheat, but I’m still not ready; I need more time to heal. I’m revisiting the GAPS Intro diet this week to get a little kick-start.
Later, I plan to try again using other heritage wheat varieties like spelt and kamut. I’m finding the variety of wheat makes a big difference in the severity of my symptoms. When we vacationed in Italy last Christmas I was able to eat their delicious breads with very little discomfort. I assume this is because the Italian wheat varieties are much less hybridized. I’m not completely healthy yet, but I am actively working on it.
But what about those healthy people Dr. Weston A. Price studied that gave him the foundation for the principles of traditional diets that are the backbone of the Weston A. Price Foundation? Nourishing Traditions, as well as Nutrition and Physical Degeneration by Dr. Weston Price, carefully detail the diet and lifestyle of the healthiest people in the world. It dawned on me that while some of these traditional people did eat grains, many of them did not. The ones that did eat grains took an awful lot of time and effort in their preparation — the Swiss from the Loetschental Valley fermented their sourdough for two weeks!
But there were more of these traditional cultures that just didn’t eat grains at all? Are we going to accuse them of fad dieting? Should we have forced them to include bread in their diets? There is no record of Dr. Price trying to force Masai tribesmen to make sourdough or chastising the Eskimo for not trying to grow wheat. He never commented at all that some traditional cultures seemed to be condemning an entire food group.
Obviously the choice to eat gluten-free is both personal as well as cultural. Traditional cultures were able to maintain good health with a wide variety of diets.
Therefore, nutritious ways to eat grains must exist. What are they?
Can you buy nutritiously prepared grains and breads? I can guarantee you that most bread eaten today, whether gluten-filled or gluten-free, is NOT from homemade, traditionally prepared recipes. Rather, this bread is industrially made and highly processed. Even premixed bags of gluten-free flours are highly processed and include ingredients that aren’t any safer or healthier than the wheat they are replacing.
However, it is absolutely possible to make your own gluten-free flours from naturally gluten-free grains and real-food flours. Grains contain many important vitamins and minerals that can benefit our bodies if they are prepared in the right way.
Without wheat I've branched out to using all kinds of different grains. Rice, corn, and gluten-free oats of course, but also amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, and teff. I love to use the flour mixture in this recipe. I mix up a big batch of the grains, run them through my grain mill, and then stir in sprouted cornmeal from To Your Health Sprouted Flours. I keep the freshly milled flour in my freezer and scoop it out whenever I want to make muffins or pancakes (soaked, of course).
(You can find Traditional Cooking School recommended gluten-free flour blends in the Allergy-Free Cooking module of the exclusive membership materials.)
Grains can definitely be nutritious. Wheat that is grown in rich, fertile soil is a good source of many vitamins and minerals. But the modern hybridizing and growing methods can greatly reduce these nutrients! Of the more than 200 varieties of wheat available, only 3 make up 90% of the world’s wheat crop. Instead of modern wheat, look for ancient and heritage varieties — such as emmer, einkorn, and spelt — grown with organic methods. This means better bread for you.
These ancient wheat varieties date back thousands and thousands of years making them staples for many of the world's cultures. On the other hand, modern hybrid wheat varieties have been in our food supply for only about the last 50 years. Additionally, most modern wheat is further processed, compartmentalized, and fractionated, making it less of a food and more of a toxin.
But even the heritage varieties must be soaked, sprouted, or fermented (soured) before eating. Nourishing Traditions credits the Chinese with discovering the nutritional value of sprouting grains. Sprouted grains have more vitamins, more enzymes, and fewer toxins. In contrast, unsprouted grains can even neutralize our own digestive enzymes making them very tough indeed to digest.
Learn more about traditional grain preparation methods, including easy step-by-step tutorials, in Traditional Cooking School exclusive membership materials.
Should whole wheat flour (even freshly milled) be your sole source for baking and cooking? Is exclusively using wheat flour any healthier than using processed gluten-free flours?
Somehow I don’t think a daily diet of wheat flour is a great idea. Just because you are having pancakes, baguettes, pasta and pilafs doesn’t mean you’ve just eaten a varied diet. Changing the outward shape doesn’t change the fact that it’s all wheat. When we look back to the traditional cultures, we see a seasonal ebb and flow to the foods they eat depending on what was available. Eating a varied diet means eating different things throughout the year — not the same thing every day.
Traditional methods of preparation are virtually unknown to the general public, but as Traditional Cooking School readers you are much better educated about these techniques. Within the traditional food communities like this, people still take the time and effort to soak, sprout, or ferment grains — and use wild yeasts in a sourdough starter rather than commercial yeast.
Why follow traditional methods? Even though grains contain important nutrients, they are simply not available for digestion and absorption in commercially prepared (or even homemade conventional) whole grain breads. Instead, the anti-nutrients in these conventionally prepared foods serve to further deplete and damage western bodies.
Choosing to follow the wisdom of the healthy traditional cultures can put you and your family on the path to good health for generations. Develop and hone the important skill of listening to your body, so that you will understand which foods build you up rather than tear you down.
Whether or not you eat wheat — or any grains at all — should be a personal decision based on your own experiences or the results of medical tests from your practitioner. Not because someone else thinks you should include or exclude it from your diet. And please, if you do suspect trouble with your digestive tract or your immune system don't ignore it, take the time to learn more about healing it.
For healing, instruction, and further information, see:
- Heal Your Gut online course from nutritional therapist Lydia Shatney (click for free meals plans and/or eBook)
- GAPS Class online course from GAPS practitioner Melanie Christner (click to get a FREE 30-Day GAPS Guide)
- Are Grains Okay When Healing Your Gut? blog post here at Traditional Cooking School by Lydia Shatney
- more articles on GAPS right here at Traditional Cooking School
- Traditional Cooking School membership (specifically traditional grain prep methods in Fundamentals module and/or the Allergy-Free Cooking module)
- GAPS Starter Bundle from Cara at Health, Home, and Happiness (GAPS meal plans, resources, and more)
- The most cutting-edge test for Celiac and other gluten sensitivities comes from Cyrex Labs which tests for more than the conventional markers for these diseases
- Do you have leaky gut? quiz
Please share your gluten-free story or comments below. We really want to hear from you!
This post was featured in 82 Ways To Heal Your Gut.
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