How Gluten Affects Our Health (Episode 173)

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How Gluten Affects Our Health (Episode 173)

Gluten sensitivity can lead to many health issues. Dr. Doni does a deep dive on the symptoms it causes, how to know if it's an issue for you and what to do to fully recover from gluten sensitivity.
Gluten can cause many health issues. Dr. Doni does a deep dive on the symptoms it causes, how to know if it's an issue for you and what to do to fully recover from gluten sensitivity.

In today’s episode we talk about gluten. What it is, the symptoms that it can cause (and how it may be involved in health issues you may be experiencing), how to know if it’s an issue for you, and what to do about it. 

Gluten has been something that I’ve been researching and learning about for more than 20 years. When I was in my training at Bastyr University in the 90s, it wasn’t well known that it could cause so many health issues. At the time, I, myself was dealing with health issues, including severe allergies and migraines, and I was trying to figure out the cause. I really wanted to understand how my diet and the food I was eating were influencing my health, and so I tried every diet and did every kind of test on myself to try and figure out the cause of my health issues. 

It wasn’t until after having graduated from Naturopathic Medical School that I finally did a test that was able to identify that gluten was an issue for me. And so, I started avoiding it and immediately started feeling better. My allergies decreased, the migraines lessened, and I started to feel better in general, so discovering that I have a sensitivity to gluten really helped me. 

As of now, I have been avoiding gluten for over 20 years and have helped thousands of patients to discover that it is an issue for their health as well. I became an expert resource on the topic, lecturing at professional conferences across the U.S. and being interviewed by the media on numerous occasions. 

In the process, I learned so much more about the trouble that gluten can cause. And in helping my patients I discovered that it is not just important to identify it as an issue, but also how to recover from gluten exposure. This is important because many patients come to me saying they are already avoiding it, but they haven’t started to feel better yet, and so it’s key to know how to do a full recovery from gluten in order to reset your health and to heal.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein that is found in certain grains, including barley, rye, spelt and wheat. This protein acts as a binder in recipes, to hold foods that we make with these grains together, and to make them chewy, like the dough in the process of making bread for example. Without gluten, the dough would just crumble and fall apart easily.

Gluten is made up of two smaller protein molecules: gliadin and glutenin. I find that it’s helpful to understand that these protein molecules are made up of amino acids, just like all protein. When we ingest protein, in general, it is broken down by our pancreatic enzymes into amino acids which can be absorbed into our bodies. 

The issue with gluten is that humans, in general, are not able to completely digest gliadin (in gluten) and the related prolamins (from wheat, barley, and rye) due to their high glutamine and proline content. That means that when we consume gluten, some amount of it will not be digested, and can become a trigger to our immune system.

It’s also important to know that there’s a whole spectrum of possible reactivities to wheat and gluten, and to understand that we don’t all react the same. A person’s immune system might be more reactive to gliadin than glutenin, for example, or vice versa. Some people may be equally reactive to both. Others may be more reactive to wheat, which is a larger molecule than gluten. It can be helpful to understand exactly what is triggering your immune system so you know what to avoid specifically. 

When Is Gluten a Problem?

Anytime we eat a food that we don’t digest well (like a larger amino acid chain or protein molecule) it has the potential of causing health issues, especially if that undigested food is able to get through the intestinal lining to where our immune system exists, ready to protect us from foreign substances. Our immune system picks up on proteins (remember that viral proteins, like all proteins, consist of amino acids!) and triggers an inflammatory response to attack the protein. 

This is what can happen with gluten, because we don’t digest it well, and because it opens spaces between intestinal cells, and gets through to where our immune system thinks it needs to protect us from it. 

Our immune system releases cytokines (which are inflammatory molecules) to try to protect us. Cytokines are important because they help us heal but if our intestines are being constantly bombarded by gluten and cytokines, there will be constant inflammation, and this can end up causing damage to our cells in the long run. Damage to the intestinal cells is called intestinal permeability or leaky gut.

For most people, eating gluten occasionally is not a problem. It is more likely to be an issue when we consume it all the time. If we’re not paying attention, we could even be exposed to it in every meal. Some people may be having it for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks. Gluten is often added to products and recipes, even when we don’t realize it. 

Besides the grains mentioned above, gluten is added to condiments, recipes and packaged foods that we wouldn’t even think would have it in them. Some breads, for example, may even contain 10 times more gluten (as an added ingredient) to make them fluffier and chewier. 

In fact, in the United States we’re exposed to more gluten than anywhere else in the world because of the “added gluten” in products, intended to increase sales of these foods. If you are wondering why gluten is such an issue now, it’s because we’re getting so much more exposed to it than ever before. Additionally, there are other factors, such as that most wheat, especially in the United States, is grown with exposure to a pesticide called glyphosate. Glyphosate is know to damage to the intestinal cells. When you combine the negative effects of glyphosate with the increased exposure to gluten, it makes sense why we are seeing an increase in gluten-related health issues. 

What Is Celiac Disease and How Is it Different from Gluten Sensitivity or Wheat Allergy?

Let’s start with wheat allergy. A wheat allergy is when your immune system is creating IgE antibodies to wheat, similar to when someone is allergic to peanuts. Someone with wheat allergy is likely to develop symptoms within minutes to hours after eating something containing wheat. The symptoms include itching, irritation and swelling of the mouth and throat, hives, itchy rash or swelling of the skin and nasal congestion. This is different from Celiac disease. 

Celiac disease (CD) is a chronic digestive and autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine. The disease is triggered by eating foods containing gluten. Celiac can cause long-lasting digestive problems and keep your body from getting all the nutrients it needs. It is an autoimmune condition meaning your immune system is not only trying to protect you from gluten (gliadin), but also from your own intestinal cells. It is thought that at first the immune system is reacting to gluten, and then begins to attack nearby proteins, including an enzyme in intestinal cells called transglutaminase enzyme or tTG. This process ends up damaging the intestinal cells, causing severe leaky gut.

About 2% of the population is considered to suffer from Celiac disease. There is a genetic correlation for this disease. We have been able to identify that people who have the genes that are called HLA DQ-2 and HLA DQ-8 have an increased risk of Celiac disease. Those people also have an increased risk of non-Celiac gluten sensitivity. 

Non-Celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS or gluten sensitivity) means a person has a reaction to gluten but doesn’t have the autoimmunity condition, so the immune system is not attacking their own cells. It is much more common than CD and is thought to occur in at least 6% of the population. Both CD and gluten sensitivity have a lot of health issues associated with them. 

What Are the Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity and CD?

One of the most common symptoms, especially in children, is a stomachache. GERD/reflux, gastritis, nausea, bowel changes, and abdominal pain are all associated with gluten sensitivity and CD. Headaches are also common. So, if you get a lot of headaches paired with digestive discomfort, you could be suffering from gluten sensitivity. 

At the same time, it’s important to consider that only about 50% of people with Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity have digestive symptoms. Many people come in saying they do not have digestive issues. In fact, it is much more likely to have neurological symptoms, like anxiety, depression, neuropathy, or other neurological issues. The inflammation is going from your digestion straight to your nervous system.

Other symptoms include fatigue, brain fog, decreased focus, memory loss and sleep issues. Not only that but gluten can cause aches and pains whether that’s joint pain, muscle pain (that might be considered fibromyalgia), and can cause nutrient deficiencies because of the damage to intestinal cells. 

When we have damage to our intestinal cells, or leaky gut, we’re not going to be able to absorb the nutrients from the foods we eat, so we become more likely to have nutrient deficiencies. The most common deficiencies are iron, vitamin D and B vitamins. It may go as far as developing anemia. So, if you have anemia or iron deficiency, you could be suffering from gluten sensitivity. It also can cause canker sores, skin rashes, menstrual issues (including fertility issues), and perimenopausal symptoms. 

One of the most common issues I find related to gluten is that it increases our risk of infections of all different types – viral infections, bacterial infections, and yeast infections. If you’re getting recurrent infections, whether that’s sinus infections or bladder infections, vaginitis, skin infections, eye infections and even persistent HPV, it can all be related to gluten.

How Can You Know if You Have Gluten Sensitivity or CD?

At least one in four people are thought to have some degree of gluten sensitivity. So, how do we test for it? How do we know if we are sensitive to it? 

For Celiac disease, the standard way to diagnose it is with an intestinal biopsy so, you would need to go into the gastroenterologist to have an endoscopy and biopsy. With the biopsy, they’re looking for damage to the small intestinal cells caused by the autoantibodies.

There is a blood test that shows anti-gliadin antibodies and antibodies to tTG. These tests are part of a Comprehensive Celiac Panel, and can give a sense of whether Celiac exists, but for an official diagnosis of Celiac disease it is necessary to do the biopsy. 

For non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, the standard is to avoid gluten for a period of time (usually at least three weeks) and monitor your symptoms. If you feel better when you eliminate it from your diet, then you could have gluten sensitivity. Then you can try re-introducing it to your diet and see if you feel worse to confirm if it’s affecting you. 

What I find really helps to identify gluten sensitivity is an IgG and IgA food panel. Not all IgA and IgG food panels are as accurate at identifying reactions to gluten, so I recommend using the lab that I have tested and found to provide the most accurate results. You can order this test through my office here. It’s a finger poke so you can do it from home anywhere in the world and mail it in. With this test, we can also check for other food that your body may be reacting to – it tests for 96 foods.

It is also possible to test for gliadin antibodies in a stool test. The stool test that I recommend to my patients is called the GI Map from Diagnostic Solutions. It is a highly sensitive test for gliadin antibodies in the stool and can identify if your immune system is trying to protect you from gluten.

These tests can be helpful even for someone who’s been avoiding gluten as they can tell you if your system is still trying to protect you from it based on your current diet. If this is the case, you may want to take a closer look at your diet so you can identify if gluten is sneaking in somehow. 

What Is Leaky Gut?

Leaky gut is a short way of saying intestinal permeability. The mucous lining of our intestines is designed to absorb water and nutrients from our food into our bloodstream. The intestinal cells are lined up next to each other and our body grows new intestinal cells every day. Those intestinal cells can be damaged by stress, injuries, medications, toxins, and gluten. When the intestinal cells are not as healthy, the intestinal lining allows undigested food to “leak” through, causing an inflammatory reaction by our immune system. 

When we’re under a lot of stress, our body is not able to keep up with making new healthy intestinal cells, leading to increased intestinal permeability or leaky gut. Other causes of leaky gut include surgery, physical stress, lack of sleep, exposure to toxins (like pesticides and toxins from gut bacteria), eating non-organic foods, alcohol, caffeine, and gluten.

Gluten causes damage to the intestinal cells by triggering the inflammation that we mentioned. It also increases a substance called zonulin which is a protein that signals to open the spaces between the cells. So, it is literally signaling through zonulin to cause leaky gut. Then it gets through to the other side of the intestinal lining and that’s where our immune system is hanging out waiting to protect us. 

So, the immune system triggers even more inflammation. And that inflammation doesn’t just stay in the intestinal area, it can go anywhere in the body which is why it can cause such broad symptoms. It goes to our nervous system, our joints, our skin, etc. 

That inflammation then overwhelms our system, causing more stress. So, not only does the stress from our external world make us more likely to have leaky gut and a reaction to gluten, but gluten and the inflammatory response cause more internal stress. And so, it becomes this vicious cycle or snowball effect where it compounds, and you end up with more and more health issues. 

By doing the food sensitivity panel that I mentioned we can get an assessment of the degree of leaky gut that you may have. To me, that is the real question – is leaky gut mild, moderate or severe.

Gluten can also disrupt our microbiome. We’ve discussed the importance of the gut microbiome in prior episodes. Microbes living in our body are important for maintaining our health in general, our immune system, our nutrient absorption, our neurotransmitters production, etc. If you would like to learn more about how important our microbiome is and how you can get yours back to balance, you can watch Episode 169 of How Humans Heal here.

Are Gluten Sensitivity and HPV Related?

Through many years helping people with gluten sensitivity, and also helping people with HPV, I have been identified a pattern. Gluten causes leaky gut, and it disrupts the gut microbiome. A disrupted gut microbiome leads to a disrupted vaginal biome, and this causes vaginal inflammation. Vaginal inflammation and a disrupted biome increase the risk of HPV. 

Also, gluten and leaky gut cause nutrient deficiencies. We know that nutrient deficiencies increase risk of HPV and abnormal cells, and decrease immune function, so it is not able to protect us optimally.  

Yes, we can work on healing leaky gut, rebalancing your biome, addressing nutrient deficiencies, and supporting your immune system to protect you from HPV. But if we don’t take gluten out of your diet, it’s just going to recur. It will happen again and again, and that’s why I spend so much time in my programs and working with patients to help them successfully eliminate it from their diet and fully recover from gluten sensitivity. 

If you have tested positive for HPV and are ready to get it out of your life for good, I encourage you to join me for an upcoming 5 Days to Heal HPV Live Online Workshop. You can learn more and sign up here.

Gluten and Autoimmunity

There is also a correlation between autoimmune diseases, such as Hashimoto’s, and gluten sensitivity. When there’s a reaction to gluten and the immune system starts to protect you, it can also begin to attack nearby tissue. 

That’s what occurs with Celiac disease and tissue transglutaminase (tTG). Similarly with Hashimoto’s, the immune system starts to protect the person from their own thyroid cells. 

Research shows the relation between gluten sensitivity, leaky gut, chronic inflammation, disrupted microbiome, and disrupted cortisol levels all leading to a likelihood of developing autoimmunity diseases. 

So, if you’re dealing with an autoimmune condition, then I would say it’s important to take a look at gluten sensitivity as an underlying cause. 

How Can We Recover from Gluten?

Step one is avoiding gluten, and that’s an important step. I have so many resources on helping people avoid it I have developed over the past couple of decades. I have written about gluten and how to avoid it in all of my books. I’ve created recipes and menu plans because I want you to have support. It doesn’t have to be a difficult thing if you have the right support. 

I also like to emphasize that it doesn’t need to be an overnight change. You don’t have to be stressing yourself trying to avoid all gluten by tomorrow. I wouldn’t try to do that. I would look at it as a learning opportunity. Start by finding replacements for common foods in your diet. 

It’s also important to know that most gluten-free products still contain carbs and sometimes more carbs and more sugar than the products containing gluten, and so you don’t want to just switch from a gluten filled product to a gluten free product and end up disrupting your blood sugar levels. That’s not a good idea either. 

What we want to do is use this as an opportunity to go more toward a balanced diet where you’re having adequate protein, adequate healthy fats and a nice balance of healthy fruits and vegetables, which, by the way, are already gluten-free. We have a lot of food options available that naturally don’t have it in them. We just need to remind ourselves to choose those foods instead of those containing gluten, or high carbs and sugar. 

I can help you to start shifting your diet so you have the support you need. I have many programs that help people with this every day. The Stress Warrior Program, for example, including my Stress Remedy 21-day meal plan, that guides you on exactly what to eat for a healthy gluten-free diet. 

The next step is healing leaky gut. You need to help your body rebuild your intestinal cells. Yes, our body grows new intestinal cells every day but when your body has been constantly bombarded with gluten, and if you’ve developed severe leaky gut and a disrupted microbiome, then it’s going to take some time for those intestinal cells to heal. 

Often patients tell me they have been avoiding gluten for years, but they still don’t feel good. I find that is most often because they have not adequately healed leaky gut. Healing leaky gut involves getting the right enzymesnutrients and herbs to help your body digest your food better and grow back new healthy cells, decrease inflammation and reestablish a healthy microbiome. 

If you want to learn more about my protocol to heal leaky gut, you can watch my FREE Heal Leaky Gut Masterclass here. If you are ready to fully heal, you can join my Leaky Gut Online Program here. It includes a food sensitivity panel and support to address your results.

Step 3 is to address nutrient deficiencies. It’s important to do the right blood test to identify if you have iron, B vitamin, vitamin D, and/or other nutrient deficiencies. These tests are not usually included in standard blood work, but they are tests I can help order so that you get the right information. When you get the right nutrients back into your body and into your cells, you’ll be able to fully recover from gluten exposure and improve your health overall.

The last step of gluten recovery is to fully reduce inflammation. Remember that gluten is triggering so much inflammation through your whole system, and even if you’re avoiding gluten, that inflammation may still exist, especially if you have leaky gut. 

To decrease inflammation, we need to look at the food sensitivity panel and see if there are other foods in addition to gluten that may be causing inflammation. By avoiding the highly reactive foods, while taking steps to heal leaky guy, you can drop inflammation levels for good. Taking anti-inflammatory herbs and enzymes can help speed up the process. And, of course, we need to address imbalanced cortisol levels in order to fully resolve inflammation. 

It’s about developing a strategy that is unique for your body and the symptoms you are experiencing. We need to understand your health issues and do the right tests to find out what your body needs and how to support it in the best way possible. 

For those of you who have more severe reactions to gluten, including Celiac disease, and you feel restricted by having to avoid gluten so strictly, and if you potentially have other types of autoimmunity, you may want to consider something called helminthic therapy. This is something that I can talk with you about and help you with as well as it has been shown to reduce severe reactivity to gluten. 

Personalize Your Recovery From Gluten

I want to emphasize that not everyone has to avoid gluten 100%, and not everyone has to avoid it forever. We really have to take it on a case by case basis, and understand how is it reacting in your body, and how it has affected your health, and then help you recover fully.

As I mentioned, stress of all types can trigger leaky gut and gluten sensitivity, as well as autoimmunity, and then gluten causes more stress from within the body. Stress then disrupts the HPA (hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis), adrenal function, and both cortisol and adrenaline levels. A perpetual cycle of stress ensues. This is why I consider recovery from stress to be so important for reversing health issues.

If you want to learn more about how stress and trauma have affected you, in terms of your cortisol and adrenaline levels, and how to recover so that you can get back to feeling your best, you may want to read my book Master Your Stress Reset Your Health

To know your Stress Type, which is your unique cortisol and adrenaline levels based on how stresses have affected your adrenal function, you can take the quiz I developed. You can find the Stress Type® Quiz in the book and on my website.

If you’re ready to start rebalancing your cortisol and neurotransmitters, to help your adrenals reset after stress exposure, you can start by ordering this home test kit. And you can also sign up for my Stress Warrior Online Program to guide you here.

If you’re interested in a safe and effective body, mind and spirit detoxification that will actually make you feel better and that you can do without affecting your daily routine, you can check out my 14-Day Detox Program here. The Detox Program includes a gluten-free, dairy-free meal plan, along with a protein shake (the protein shake is included), as well as videos to guide you every step of the way. 

If you’re interested in learning more about my approach to addressing HPV, including why healing leaky gut is essential, you can find my HPV Recovery Guide here. If you would like more help getting HPV to negative, and are really committed to erasing it from your life forever, you can sign up for the upcoming 5 Days to Heal HPV Workshop here or my Say Goodbye to HPV 12-Week Program here.

To read more blogs about gluten and leaky gut, you can find them here

You can also subscribe to my newsletter, where you’ll receive a newsletter from me every Thursday with the latest episode and additional resources and tools for your success with achieving optimal health.

For the most comprehensive support, even with the most difficult health issues (physical or mental), it is best to meet with me one-on-one, which is available to you no matter where you are in the world (via phone or zoom). You can set up a one-on-one appointment with me here.

We’re here to help you! 

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  3. Catassi C, Elli L, Bonaz B, Bouma G, Carroccio A, Castillejo G, Cellier C, Cristofori F, de Magistris L, Dolinsek J, Dieterich W, Francavilla R, Hadjivassiliou M, Holtmeier W, Körner U, Leffler DA, Lundin KE, Mazzarella G, Mulder CJ, Pellegrini N, Rostami K, Sanders D, Skodje GI, Schuppan D, Ullrich R, Volta U, Williams M, Zevallos VF, Zopf Y, Fasano A. Diagnosis of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS): The Salerno Experts’ Criteria. Nutrients. 2015 Jun 18;7(6):4966-77. doi: 10.3390/nu7064966. PMID: 26096570; PMCID: PMC4488826.
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