Updated: May 3, 2019
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat and other grains, such as oats, barley, and rye. The term “gluten” comes from a Latin word meaning “glue,” and it truly does act like the glue that holds baked goods together. Gluten gives a chewy texture to breads, bagels, and pizza crust and makes their dough more elastic. A typical American could easily eat gluten with every meal of the day—in foods like toast, sandwiches, crackers, cookies, pasta, and more.
Gluten is a protein, but it actually has very low nutritional value and tends to cause more harm than good. Different people react to gluten in different ways. About 1 in every 100 people has celiac disease, a condition that produces a severe reaction to gluten. This statistic is up from 1 in 3000 just 25 years ago. In addition, as many as 1 in every 3 people has non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition that causes a variety of digestive or non-digestive symptoms in response to gluten. Other people have a wheat allergy, which means that their body produces antibodies and inflammation in response to wheat.
Even in people who do not have celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or a wheat allergy, gluten can still create problems. Gluten triggers the release of zonulin in the small intestines, which is a protein that promotes increased intestinal permeability—also known as leaky gut. Leaky gut feeds into a vicious cycle of digestive problems, driving intestinal inflammation, an inability to absorb nutrients, and any number of symptoms such as gas, bloating, or diarrhea.
Some doctors, nurses, and even dietitians will say that a gluten-free diet is a fad. They will argue that gluten-containing foods provide important nutrients, such as B vitamins and fiber. The reality is that most gluten-containing foods are made with white flour that has been stripped of its nutrition and enriched with a handful of vitamins. A gluten-free diet based on wholesome foods can easily provide as much or more nutrition than a diet containing gluten. In my experience, the benefits of eliminating gluten from the diet far outweigh any supposed risks. In fact, I have been recommending that many of my patients remove gluten from their diets for almost 30 years, and I consistently see their symptoms improve.
Because gluten can have so many adverse effects on digestive health—potentially creating inflammation, leaky gut, or malabsorption—it is especially important for anyone with digestive symptoms to remove gluten from the diet. Patients with heartburn, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, irritable bowel syndrome, or inflammatory bowel diseases might all benefit by taking the simple step of transitioning to a gluten-free diet.
1. Fasano A. Zonulin, regulation of tight junctions, and autoimmune diseases. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2012;12(5):25-33.
About the Author: Dr. Gerard Guillory, MD is Board Certified in Internal Medicine and has published two books on Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). In 1985, he opened The Care Group, PC. Today, his clinic is a Primary Care facility that is a hybrid of functional and traditional medicine treating patients with digestive disorders, autoimmune disease, and other conditions. You can learn more about Dr. Guillory here.