Demystifying Wheat & Gluten Sensitivities

Written by: Dr. Baili Clarke, ND

Wheat and gluten have made many headlines this past year, with many people adopting or experimenting with a 'gluten-free' diet for a variety of reasons.  Although there has been a lot of coverage in the media, you may still find yourself asking, “what's the big deal?”, and more importantly, “could I be sensitive?”  With all of this hype, it is necessary to shed some light and perspective on this very inflammatory topic.

First and foremost, it is necessary to be clear on the difference between wheat and gluten.  Quite simply, “wheat” is a type of whole grain, such as rice and oat; while, “gluten” is the protein complex found in high amounts in wheat, but also found in other grains (i.e. barley, rye, kamut, spelt, etc.). The most well-known ‘gluten-free’ grains are rice, quinoa, millet, and amaranth.  In the baking world, gluten is considered highly valuable because it adds the fluffy, doughy consistency to baked goods that we all know and love.

So what’s the big deal? While wheat has long been considered one of the top eight most allergenic foods, along with dairy, soy, corn, eggs, peanuts, shellfish, and citrus fruit; it is now suspected that wheat, particularly gluten, falls on a spectrum of sensitivity that ranges anywhere from a mild intolerance, to a severe allergy, to Celiac Disease (an autoimmune disease characterized by the immune system’s destruction of the small intestine whenever gluten is consumed) and with increasing occurrence. Further to this, according to Dr. William Davis, MD, wheat should never be consumed as food, with or without sensitivity.  In his best-selling book,Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight and Find Your Path Back to Health (2011), he explains that wheat as we know it today is completely different than it was in our Grandparent’s generation.  He argues that as a result of the multiple genetic alterations by agricultural scientists over the past 50 years, wheat is no longer a healthy food to consume. He suggests that wheat can wreak havoc on the body in 3 different ways: 1) It is a ‘supercarbohydrate’ that contains the unique complex carbohydrate amylopectin A that is easily digested and converted into glucose and is the reason why only 2 two slices of whole wheat bread has the ability to raise blood sugar more than sucrose (table sugar); 2) It contains exorphins (digestible by-products of Gliadin) that can cross the blood-brain barrier and activate opiate receptors in the brain, creating addictive behaviors and acting as appetite suppressants (thus leading to excess weight gain); and 3) It has lectins (proteins that protect it from predators, fungi, etc.) that the human body cannot digest properly and, as a result, can cause chronic inflammation in the digestive tract.

So, the question remains, "could I be sensitive"? The difficulty with diagnosing sensitivity to gluten is that there isn’t any test available that is 100% accurate, and there are endless possibilities of symptom presentation that can confuse the matter. Any of the following symptoms are possible in varying degrees of severity: fatigue, muscle aches, ‘brain fog’, headaches, joint pain, sinus issues, digestive disturbance (gas/bloating, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal cramps, acid reflux, nausea, etc.), and weight gain.  If you experience any of the above symptoms long term, and other causes have been ruled out by your doctor, you could indeed be sensitive to gluten! The gold standard in identifying any food sensitivity is that of the ‘elimination & challenge’, which involves a period of strict elimination for an adequate amount of time, followed by a step-wise reintroduction. Food sensitivity blood testing can also be helpful in identifying possible delayed-type sensitivities mediated by IgG antibodies in the immune system – especially when you suspect multiple food sensitivities and a complete ‘elimination & challenge’ diet of the most common food sensitivities seems overwhelming or not manageable.  

The bottom line is this: although not everyone is sensitive to wheat or gluten, it appears that for a variety of complex reasons, many people are.  If you are, it is worthwhile knowing as it can alleviate chronic health complaints and prevent the development of more serious problems.  Even if completely eliminating gluten is not feasible for you, it seems that significantly reducing your daily intake and incorporating healthier, gluten-free whole grains is a step in the right direction to optimizing your health!