When I did most of my work in traditional medicine, I thought the gluten-free craze was just that - crazy.

I did recognize the small percentage of people with celiac disease, which is a true gluten intolerance. Aside from that, I was annoyed that many in the wellness community were supporting a “gluten-free” lifestyle. I felt it was gimmicky, driven by marketing, just another health craze that would fade into the woodwork.

However, experience proved my assumptions wrong. The longer I took care of patients in private practice, the more I studied integrative and functional medicine, the more I saw people heal by taking gluten out of their diet.

Now I frequently test my patients for celiac disease and recommend a gluten-free trial regardless of the results. This is especially true for those with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), resistant weight loss, autoimmune disease, chronic aches and pains and more. Depending on their lab results and how they respond to a gluten-free diet, the recommendation for some is to maintain a gluten-free diet for the long haul.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, three grains that are a major part of the standard American diet. It provides elasticity and a chewy texture to many foods, including salad dressings, canned soups, flavored chips and more. This chewy texture is what makes it tough to digest and leads to issues in the lower gastrointestinal (GI) tract.

What happens to gluten after it is consumed?

It is resistant to digestion, remaining whole as it moves through the gastrointestinal tract. Once in the small intestine, whole gluten can make its way into the bloodstream in genetically predisposed people or those with leaky gut, triggering the immune system to attack healthy cells by mistake. That can destroy the intestinal lining and cause gastrointestinal symptoms and inflammation throughout the body.

Why is gluten a problem for some people?

For some, gluten triggers an exaggerated immune response and ultimately celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disease affecting about 3 million Americans. For those with an autoimmune disease, the immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake. For those with celiac disease, undigested gluten crosses the gut barrier and triggers inflammation in the GI tract and elsewhere in the body. Inflammation is the classic sign of autoimmune disease.

Far more people – about 18 million Americans – have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. They don’t experience gastrointestinal inflammation but still can’t tolerate gluten. They experience headaches, joint pain and numbness in the legs, arms and fingers. Foods with genetically modified gluten, underlying gut issues (dysbiosis of the gut, leaky gut, compromised digestion), and the highly processed standard American diet may be culprits.

Thinking of going gluten-free?

If you’re thinking of going gluten-free or suspect gluten sensitivity but don’t have a confirmed celiac disease diagnosis, check out this list first.

Here are five things to consider when going gluten-free:

  1. Get tested. Celiac disease is hereditary. People with a parent, child or sibling with celiac disease have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac disease. Or, if you have any type of celiac disease symptoms (IBS, malabsorption of vitamins and nutrients, unexplained fatigue, infertility, unexplained inflammation)
  2. Do an elimination diet, getting rid of foods that cause inflammation.
  3. Heal your gut! Book an appointment with me in clinic for a personalized plan.
  4. If you have celiac disease, go gluten free for life. Get help from your doctor or a nutritionist to build a gluten-free lifestyle.
  5. If you don’t have celiac disease but feel better without gluten, stick with it for a while! I usually have people follow a mostly gluten-free lifestyle for three to six months. At the same time, we work on reducing inflammation and healing the gut. Ultimately, many can bring unprocessed foods with whole gluten back into their diet!

Once you’ve made the decision to go gluten-free, there are a few things to keep in mind. Put these tips into action to help avoid cross-contamination in your household.

Tips for Buying and Storing Gluten-Free Foods:

  • Read labels. Remember that “wheat-free” is not the same thing as “gluten-free”. When in doubt, only purchase products with the certified gluten-free label. Cream-based products typically use wheat as a thickener.
  • Many personal care products and nutritional supplements contain gluten. Be sure to choose brands that are gluten-free.
  • Many gluten-free breads and pastas are stored in the refrigerated or frozen sections in the grocery store. If you can’t find these at your regular grocery store, you can likely find gluten-free foods at health food stores.
  • Do not purchase gluten-free grains from the bulk section of the grocery store unless they are kept in a separate area from gluten-containing grains. The possibility for cross-contamination with gluten is much higher when gluten-containing and gluten-free grains are sold side by side.
  • To avoid cross-contamination at home, use one cabinet as your dedicated gluten-free pantry.
  • When purchasing gluten-free beer, look for beers made with gluten-free grains. If gluten-free beer is not available, opt for cider, wine or distilled spirits.

Information is power! As you learn about how your body reacts to gluten, you can make better decisions about your next steps. I’ve included some resources below to help you in your journey.

Resources

Sources

The Nutrition Source, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health

Everyday Ayurveda

Dr. Josh Axe: Food is Medicine

University of Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine


5 Things to Consider When Going Gluten-Free | Lynn K. Wagner, M.D.