You’ve probably heard of this “dirty’ word in nutrition – gluten – but do you really know what gluten is and how it impacts your digestion?
Gluten is a protein found in some grains, most commonly in wheat and barley. Gluten is used often in processed foods as a binder or filler because it has a “sticky” texture, so it is great for holding nutritional ingredients together. In fact, this stickiness and elasticity is the main reason why gluten is used in breads and doughs. A person may have a gluten intolerance that can be slight, leading to only a mild intolerance, discomfort, and digestive problems after eating a gluten-containing food such as wheat. However, those with a more severe gluten allergy may experience the initiation of more serious symptoms such as celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that can damage the digestive system.
Why have gluten sensitivities only recently become more well-known? Many researchers think it may be due to environmental and food changes. A common theory is that new wheat varieties contain higher gluten content but are more commonly used because of their natural insect-repelling qualities. Additionally, the modern diet of American people includes more wheat-based products than it did in previous decades.
So, what does this all mean for your digestive system? When you digest carbohydrates, fats, and proteins, normally, long strands of proteins are broken down by digestive enzymes. These powerful enzymes can break off amino acid groups called peptides, which can then be further broken down, absorbed, and transported for use throughout the body. However, for those with gluten sensitivities or celiac disease, their bodies are unable to break down gluten by typical digestive enzymes. However, there is some research to indicate that certain dietary enzymes (such as dipeptidyl peptidase-IV, an enzyme which specifically breaks down gluten) can aid in the digestion of gluten.
For those with celiac disease, when the proteins from gluten are absorbed by the small intestine, the immune system views those proteins as toxins and malfunctions. This toxic response then unleashes an inflammatory response. This dramatic response can damage the small intestine that can attack the intestinal villi (small, velvety projections that line the wall of the small intestine to absorb nutrients) and cause gastrointestinal distress.
Those who suffer from gluten intolerance and celiac disease may find it difficult at first to transition away from eating products containing gluten because they are so widespread. However, nutritionally well-rounded substitutes are available such as amaranth, buckwheat, millet, quinoa, sorghum, and teff. They are referred to as the “super six” because of their high fiber and impressive vitamin content. These substitutes and others are quickly becoming more common in many people’s diets. Additionally, popular gluten-free or low-gluten diets such as the Mediterranean or Biofield Diet emphasize whole-food, plant-based eating, making it easier for people with gluten intolerance and celiac disease to meet their nutritional needs.
- Darcey, Melissa. “The Growth of Gluten Sensitivity and the Genetics Behind It.” Pathway Genomics, 3 Apr. 2018, www.pathway.com/blog/the-growth-of-gluten-sensitivity-and-the-genetics-behind-it/#:~:text=Some%20doctors%20and%20scientists%20believe,of%20their%20natural%20insecticide%20qualities.
- “Digestion-of-Gluten.” Dr. Schär Institute, 8 Oct. 2019, www.drschaer.com/us/institute/a/digestion-gluten#:~:text=Digestion%20of%20Proteins&text=The%20enzymes%20cleave%20or%20break,down%20by%20the%20digestive%20enzymes.