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Is a gluten-free diet healthy, or is it unhealthy? One of the first steps we recommend for switching to a more nutritious diet is eliminating grains because it’s one of the fastest ways to reduce inflammation. Why grains? Grains contain inflammatory proteins like gluten. Changing one aspect of your diet won’t necessarily make it healthy, but certain foods are especially damaging to your health. Gluten-containing foods are one category, but let’s cover a bit more before you load up on gluten-free donuts.

Isn’t a Gluten-Free Diet Just for Those with Celiac Disease or Digestive Issues?

Isn’t a gluten-free diet just for those with celiac disease? No, not necessarily, and according to the Celiac Disease Foundation, 1 in 100 have celiac disease, and 70% are undiagnosed. (1) Celiac disease is when the protein gluten causes damage to the small intestine. Gluten is a trigger that causes inflammation. While many people have undiagnosed celiac disease and grain allergies, gluten is a trigger for everyone.

What we can learn from research on celiac disease is how damaging gluten can be to the body. Going gluten-free eliminates a protein that’s detrimental to the body. Gluten can contribute to celiac and other autoimmune conditions.

Gluten and Zonulin

Let’s talk about gluten and zonulin. Zonulin is an intestinal protein that modulates intestinal permeability and is a biomarker for gut health. If you have a high level of zonulin, your body is trying to flush something out. That’s why many, but not all, will experience symptoms such as diarrhea and malnutrition on gluten.  In a 2006 study, researchers found that eating gluten initiated zonulin release in celiac patients in remission and nonceliac patients. (2) That means 100% of people who eat gluten have a response to it.

Whether or not you have symptoms directly associated with eating gluten, it causes an internal reaction. There’s still inflammation, disruption in the GI tract, and increased gut permeability (“leaky gut”). When the integrity of this barrier is compromised, it can lead to systemic problems and potentially an array of autoimmune disorders.

For many of us, a gluten reaction can manifest as headaches, skin problems, fatigue, and digestive issues. Because responses can be delayed and not immediate, you might not connect your reactions to eating gluten. You might only realize the benefits of avoiding gluten once you try a gluten-free diet for a several months.

Removing Triggers Like Gluten

Just because something is gluten-free doesn’t make it healthy, and a gluten-free diet isn’t always healthy. Removing gluten and replacing it with other inflammatory foods won’t help heal your gut. There are many unhealthy and/or overprocessed gluten-free foods. To heal gut inflammation and reduce hyperpermeability, you need to avoid inflammatory foods. If you replace gluten-containing foods with ones with inflammatory ingredients, you will have an unhealthy gluten-free diet.

For example, replacing organic sourdough bread with gluten-free bread containing GMO corn starch, canola oil, and preservatives might do more harm than good.

You may also be removing one of your sources of fiber, and since many people have diets with low amounts of fiber, this could leave you at an even greater deficit. So, as you replace those gluten-containing foods, look for fiber-rich vegetables. Your body needs a variety of nutritious whole foods that are ideally organic. If you need help, check out our article on giving up gluten and the many healthy, gluten-free recipes on the website. By doing this, you can work on healing your gut and potentially benefit from some researched benefits of a gluten-free diet:

Common Health Benefits of a Gluten-free Diet

1) Decreased Inflammation

Chronic inflammation is a sign your body is trying to heal itself. So, while inflammation in the short term is a good sign, it’s best to remove the trigger. Studies on mice have found that gluten increases inflammatory biomarkers while a gluten-free diet improves them. (2)(3)

2) Better Digestion

If you aren’t damaging and inflaming the gut, your digestion will go much smoother. You might notice less bloating, flatulence, diarrhea, nausea, and other digestive symptoms once you remove gluten from your diet.

3) Increased Energy

Gut inflammation can inhibit the absorption of vital nutrients that give you energy, and gluten can lead to anemia. Your body also uses many resources when you have chronic inflammation and are trying to heal. If you remove the trigger, you could have increased energy levels. Who doesn’t want more energy?

4) Improved Mental Clarity

A commonly reported symptom after eating gluten is brain fog. Hyperpermeability in the gut can also lead to increased blood-brain barrier permeability. When that happens, there’s greater potential for toxins and bacteria to cross into the brain, leading to brain fog. One of the benefits of a gluten-free diet is improved mental clarity.

5) Reduces Risk of Depression

If you have better digestion and more energy, you’ll naturally be less depressed. Additionally, feel-good neurotransmitters like serotonin come from your gut. If the gut is compromised, nutrient absorption may not be good. Without critical nutrients, your body cannot make neurotransmitters at adequate levels. A healthy gut may, therefore, help reduce your risk of depression.

6) Better Skin Health

Do you have bumps on the back of your arm? It’s a common side effect of eating gluten. Gluten can also result in several skin conditions that look like eczema, dermatitis, or rosacea. As you take gluten out of your diet, you may see your skin health improve.

7) Improved Joint Pain

Many people wake up with achy joints and assume it’s a normal part of getting older. It’s a sign of chronic inflammation and inflammation that leaves you achy. Remove the trigger, and you might reduce that joint pain.

Is a Gluten-free Diet Healthy?

Any diet can be unhealthy, but a healthy diet doesn’t include gluten. Start improving your diet by giving up grains and the gluten they contain. When you experience benefits, you won’t ask whether a gluten-free diet is healthy; you’ll ask yourself if eating gluten is worth the pain.

Learn more about gluten and gut health in this video with Dr. Zach Papendieck:

References

  1. What is Celiac Disease? | Celiac Disease Foundation
  2. Gliadin, zonulin and gut permeability: Effects on celiac and non-celiac intestinal mucosa and intestinal cell lines – PubMed (nih.gov)
  3. Gluten-free diet reduces adiposity, inflammation and insulin resistance associated with the induction of PPAR-alpha and PPAR-gamma expression – PubMed (nih.gov)
  4. Gliadin Induces an Increase in Intestinal Permeability and Zonulin Release by Binding to the Chemokine Receptor CXCR3 – PMC (nih.gov)

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Disclaimer: This content is for educational purposes only. It’s not intended as a substitute for the advice provided by your Wellness Way clinic or personal physician, especially if currently taking prescription or over-the-counter medications. Pregnant women, in particular, should seek the advice of a physician before trying any herb or supplement listed on this website. Always speak with your individual clinic before adding any medication, herb, or nutritional supplement to your health protocol. Information and statements regarding dietary supplements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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