Gluten has been the big bad wolf of the nutrition industry for quite a while now. While only 1% of the population of America is estimated to suffer from celiac disease, a potentially life-threatening condition where gluten actually damages the lining of the sufferer’s stomach, a full 18% of Americans regularly purchase gluten-free food products and a startling 30% of us do or would like to reduce the amount of gluten in their diets.
The incredible thing is, non-celiac gluten sensitivity might not even exist! There are a lot of very convincing arguments in favor of gluten sensitivity. When pieced together, it all starts to make sense. We’ve all had those moments after a meal where something just doesn’t feel right, haven’t we? I’m not talking about an upset stomach, or the always classic “food coma,” but something a little bit harder to put your finger on. And certainly many adults suffer from a variety of symptoms which are often attributed to the gluten bogeyman.
There’s one big chink in that armor, however. The scientists who first broke the news that we might be poisoning ourselves through our diets weren’t satisfied with the results of their study and decided to perform a more comprehensive, more scientifically rigorous one. After obtaining a suitable sample of individuals who considered themselves gluten-sensitive, the researchers, including Peter Gibson and Jessica Biesiekierski, two skilled gastroenterologists, set about a proper scientific experiment. They designed a series of dietary regimens. All other potential causes of gastrointestinal distress were eliminated. The subjects then received a course of high-gluten meals, average-gluten meals, and no-gluten meals. At all points in the experiment, the subjects did not know which they were eating.
No outside food was allowed and the study turned out to provide some striking clues to the cause of most cases of gluten sensitivity. There seemed to be no medical difference between the diets containing high gluten, medium gluten, or no gluten. In the previous study, subjects were aware of the gluten content of their meals and the researchers believe that this resulted in something akin to the placebo effect. The subject expected to feel worse after eating gluten.
The mind is a powerful thing. Sometimes we let it get the best of us to disastrous results. Sometimes we don’t listen to it and suffer all the same. These scientists are notably not saying that gluten sensitivity does not exist, only that self-diagnosis is clearly not the best means of determining whether you have it or not.
If you do decide to proceed without a doctor, here are some possible symptoms of this possible condition.
Upset stomachs are frequently attributed to gluten, but before you drop it from your diet, consider other possible culprits, like chemical preservatives, or the type of sugars known as FODMAPs.
These carbohydrates are difficult to digest and ferment in the stomach, leading to gastrointestinal unpleasantness. They’re found in grains, to be sure, but they’re also found in many root vegetables, leafy greens, and even some fruits, especially blackberries.
Dizziness is another symptom many blame gluten for, but this might be even more simple than you think, and possibly more worrisome.
Salt and sugar are jam-packed into the diet of most Americans, and both on their own can lead to dizziness, which may be a symptom of a potentially dangerous blood sugar or blood pressure condition. See a doctor if you’re frequently finding yourself dizzy after meals, please!
Going back to that sugar thing… gluten might not be pulling your angry strings or pushing your sad buttons. In fact, you might just need to audit your sugar intake. While many of us are familiar with the concept of getting “hangry” as a result of not eating, we also often are unaware that too much food in general, or foods containing more carbohydrates than we realize, can also affect our mood in unpredictable ways.
Fibromyalgia. Now here’s a wiggly issue.
There are plenty of people who think fibromyalgia is 100% psychological. This is not to say the symptoms aren’t very physically real, only that the origins of the disease are in neurochemicals. There’s a fairly good case to be made for that. The genes researchers have found to be potentially linked to fibromyalgia are also linked to depression. One group of researchers in Spain has proposed a link between gluten and fibromyalgia symptoms, but what they actually found was that sufferers of fibromyalgia frequently also suffer from a wide variety of nutritional deficiencies and an overall poor diet. Whether this is making the fibromyalgia worse or whether they are both caused by an underlying neurological disorder is still uncertain.
Migraine sufferers have recently been looking at gluten to curb their intense headaches but if eliminating bread helps ease your symptoms, consider trying unleavened bread and seeing how that goes.
A much more significant (but still anecdotal) indication is that yeast-containing foods are a potential trigger, not gluten. Baking soda-leavened bread might not be the best substitute, though, as sodium is also often fingered as a migraine trigger.
Itchy skin. Well of course gluten could cause this, right?
Not necessarily. Itchy skin, rashes, or hives can certainly be caused by diet, but if you’re suffering from these or other skin-related symptoms, you should seriously consider consulting a dermatologist, but also take a strong look at your everyday environment. If ditching gluten seems to have cleared it up, great! But you might simply have a wheat allergy. Or maybe it was a particularly dry few days. This is why it’s important to seek professional advice.
Chronic fatigue is a pretty nebulous term, but I think we all have a pretty solid concept of the basics.
If you’re finding yourself unable to muster the strength to make it through the day, if you’re exhausted despite what seems like a full night’s sleep, and you just can’t seem to shake this down feeling, definitely take a look at your diet. But also take a look at your exercise, and your environment. Are you sleeping with lights on in the house? Going to bed watching Netflix? There are a lot of things we all do that can leave you perpetually exhausted. It can even be a symptom of chronic depression. This is definitely something you can probably resolve yourself, and if kicking bread to the curb makes you feel better while doing it, go for it!
Lactose intolerance is sometimes attributed to gluten, although many simply consider them to be two sides of the same coin.
Let’s be clear. We all probably drink too much milk. Most animals stop when they’re babies, but we’ve created an industry around providing us with a constant supply. We get it. Milk is delicious. The fact is, though, most humans grow perpetually more lactose intolerant as they get older, and if you’ve got a lot of bread and a lot of gluten in your diet, we’d suggest trying to eliminate the dairy first and seeing how that goes. You might just be surprised.