Austin Texas, where I live, is famous for allergies. We joke in a not-so-funny manner that if you don’t have allergies when you arrive, you will once you’ve been here for a couple of years. Seems like Austinites are allergic to everything. Now, I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but it seems like the gluten allergy or gluten intolerance is the “flavor of the week,” outpacing even the mold and cedar allergies in the list of top complaints. This has bothered me. My grandparents were farmers, grew wheat, and ate bread with every meal. Why didn’t they have a problem with grains?
It’s not a bad question, actually. Grains have been the ‘staff of life’ for a very long time. There is better than decent evidence to support the belief that people have been eating grains since the Middle Paleolithic age some 100,000 years ago. Literate ancient cultures across the world have consumed grains and yet no one can find hieroglyphics or written text suggesting Celiac’s disease, gluten intolerance, or “Wheat Belly.” In Chinese Medicine the digestive system is referred to as “The Sea of Grain and Water.” So when did grains become the bad guy?
If you take a high-speed tour through agricultural history you will note that human-kind has been messing with the genetics of plants and animals for a very long time. Even though there is a lot of talk about GMO’s, it is not a new concept or practice. The ancient peoples of Meso-america selectively bred strains of grass into corn over the span of thousands of years. The hundreds of breeds of dogs you see on the Westminster Dog Shows were selectively bred from wolves over huge spans of time as well. Seems we are always trying to find a better way to produce the things we want. Wheat and other glutinous grains (rye, barley, spelt, couscous, and bulgar for instance), have been modified by selective breeding and more recently by more direct genetic modifications such as gene splicing.
As a matter of fact, we are in the thick of an agricultural revolution with which our genes cannot keep pace. We are hominids, descendants of tree-dwelling primates. For the bulk of our history on earth we have not been a primarily grain eating species. True, our ancestors probably did eat grains, they just didn’t eat them as extensively as we do now. The top modern-day food crops are overwhelmingly grains: corn, rice, wheat, barley, oats, rye and sorghum. These grains make up over half of the food energy in the world and half of the protein consumed. That’s an awful lot of grain feeding an awful lot of people. And that’s why there has been an awful lot of genetic modification. Genetic modification makes it more disease-resistant, more pest-resistant, faster growing and higher yield. This great for the producers, but is it good for us?
Not so much. The problem isn’t the grain itself. The problem is what has been done to the grain coupled with our increasing dependence on it to the exclusion of other and more nutritious sources of food. Basically, if our grandparents ate like we do today, they might be gluten intolerant too.
So what is gluten? And what does gluten intolerance look like?
Gluten is a protein complex made up of gliadin and glutelin. Gluten is found in many grains, most breads and cereals, and an astonishing number of foods. Chicken breasts you find in places like Chik-Fil-A, for instance, are not solid pieces of chicken breast, but bits of chicken that are “glued” together with a glutinous substance which makes it look like the real thing. Ditto for chicken nuggets. You’re not safe by avoiding meat either, as many vegan and vegetarian foods are also heavily dependent upon glutens – wheat roast, tempeh, and most of the meat substitute products contain it. And those “natural flavors” you listed on packaged foods? A lot of those are glutinous. There are even a lot of herbal supplements that are prepared with gluten containing flours. The upshot of all this is you probably consume far more grain and gluten on a daily basis than you realize.
Systemic responses to this gluten overload (and that’s probably a better term than gluten intolerance) vary, but some of the more common responses are:
- Respiratory problems
These include runny nose, nasal congestion, coughing, itching eyes, and even snoring.
- Digestive difficulties
Bloating and stomach pains, excess gas, and diarrhea are common complaints. Gluten overload can irritate the stomach lining and even cause an inflammatory response in the small intestine that can damage the small villi that absorb your food. Celiac’s disease, an autoimmune disease in which the immune system reacts to gliadin (a component of the gluten protein complex) causes an extreme amount of pain in the body.
- And even more…
Gluten reactions has even been linked to depression, fatigue, insomnia, foggy mind, lethargy after eating, certain GI cancers, and ADHD. An astonishing 80% of your immune system is in your digestive system, so it’s not surprising that gluten has also been implicated in a number of autoimmune disorders besides Celiac’s.
Should you totally give it up? Maybe. Maybe not. If you have symptoms like those above that are impacting your life or if you’ve been diagnosed with or have signs of Celiac’s Disease then it would be worth your while to feel better. There is certainly a strong argument for avoiding GMO’s no matter what the immediate symptoms.
Gluten, however, proves to be a very hard thing to give up. It has addictive properties because it mimics the effects of opiods. Even the smell of glutinous foods triggers the internal happy chemicals. (That’s why savvy realtors who are trying to sell a house will sometimes have cookies or bread baking when they show a home.) Conversely, when you try to give it up, your body goes into a withdrawal-like craving when you are without it for a period of time.
Unless you have a severe dysfunction associated with glutens, it might be more advisable to simply cut down on them and see how you feel. As with anything healthy you do about your diet, you are probably going to have to prepare your own food rather than going out to eat. Try substituting rice, amaranth, buckwheat (which isn’t truly a wheat), millet, or quinoa for the more glutinous options. As with any diet change, be clear on why you are changing your eating.
Personally, I find that I have more energy, sleep better, have far less congestion and asthma-like symptoms, and digest my food better when I reduce the amount of highly processed grains I consume. I think my grandparents would approve.