By: Dr. John Bagnulo, Director of Nutrition
Most clinicians today are astounded at the number of individuals they see in their practice who have gluten sensitivities, either self-reported or otherwise. Additionally, many families now aim for gluten-free diets based on a wide variety of symptoms and/or ailments that they observe in their children even though they have tested negative for celiac disease with traditional blood tests commonly known as celiac panels. This gap between self-diagnosed gluten–related sufferer numbers and those physician-reported cases used by the CDC (based on the presence of antibodies found in subjects blood) has created a fair amount of controversy with respect to how prevalent gluten issues are.
First the basics, gluten is synonymous with grain protein. Almost all true grains have some type of gluten. Wheat and its closest relatives have the types of gluten that seem to pose the greatest difficulty for human digestion and wheat’s gliadin is the most problematic. When humans eat gliadin, and most mammals have similar physiological responses, the presence of gliadin in the GI stimulates the production and release of the intestinal secretion zonulin. First discovered by Alessio Fasano, MD as an innate immune response to this foreign prolamin gliadin (a relatively small protein), zonulin is now recognized as a key sentinel in opening the gates of our small intestine to our circulating immune cells.
As it turns out, Fasano’s discovery revealed numerous relationships between the outside World, our microbiome, and gluten. Zonulin is affected by numerous intestinal exposures, gluten being the one that was instrumental in its discovery.
"Nutritionally speaking, gluten is useless," according to Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research at Massachusetts General Hospital for Children. "It doesn’t do anything for us," he says. "For the [first] 99.9 percent of our human evolution, our species has been gluten-free." The protein entered our diets only about 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors began domesticating crops, he says. As a result, our bodies don’t contain the digestive enzymes to break it down. Eating a lot of gluten is akin to "asking your GI system to do an impossible mission: to digest something that’s not digestible," says Fasano, a pediatric gastroenterologist.
What follow up research has shown, however, is that with gluten and changes in the intestinal environment, it may be hard to always say which comes first. Some individuals appear to become much more vulnerable to the damaging effects of gluten once they have lost important families of beneficial bacteria. As Stefanie Seneff, PhD and Anthony Samsel, PhD illustrate in another groundbreaking paper, the presence of glyphosates, at ever-increasing amounts with more and more Roundup Ready® crops grown (over 250 million pounds of this herbicide is applied in the US alone) causes distinct disruption of the microbiome. The resulting loss of gut bacteria and subsequent dysbiosis increases our risk of developing celiac disease or similar gluten-related intolerances.
In animal studies (keep in mind that no one is allowed to conduct feeding trials with glyphosates in human populations), it has been shown that dietary exposure causes significant losses of pivotal families of bacteria and the overgrowth of particularly pathogenic strains. Many of these pathogenic bacteria also signal an increased secretion of zonulin. With both bacteria imbalances caused by glyphosate exposure and the presence of gliadin in wheat, zonulin secretion gets ratcheted up rapidly and the flood gates open. This allows too much immune-intestinal lining interaction and results in high levels of inflammation and downstream damage. To make matters worse almost all wheat grown conventionally contains glyphosates, even if it is GMO-free (as glyphosates are now used in the browning process of most conventional cereal crops). There is even research showing that some organic wheat crops also contain glyphosates.
In summary, don’t think that just because you tested negative for celiac disease at your local physicians office that your suspected gluten intolerance is "all in your head." There are numerous forces at work on the intestinal lining and producing antibodies to gliadin is reflective of one of these. There is no risk in taking a break from all gluten-containing grains, choosing only non-GMO and organic produce, and eating fermented foods regularly to restore healthy gut bacteria. Until there is greater regulation around the use of glyphosates in both GMO and non-GMO crops, eating wheat may be a risk not worth taking.
Dr. John Bagnulo is the Director of Nutrition at Functional Formularies and leads nutrition research and development initiatives. Learn more about Dr. Bagnulo here.