You likely know someone who follows a gluten-free diet. Plus, the FDA released label guidelines for gluten-free foods, making it easier to spot these foods on the shelves. People choose to follow a gluten-free diet for a myriad of reasons, including behavioral issues, diseases of the digestive tract and autoimmune diseases, including celiac disease.
You might wonder how gluten affects your health and if you should opt for gluten-free products when grocery shopping. While many people truly do function at their best while avoiding gluten, it’s not a cure for all health problems. Understanding how gluten might affect your gut health can allow you to make an informed decision about gluten.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein naturally found in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Gluten acts as a binder in foods and is what gives bread its chewy texture.
We found gluten in more than just bread products, which makes it trickier to spot. Typical foods that contain gluten are:
- baked goods
- salad dressings
- Roux (flour mixed with fat, often used to make sauces)
- malt (malted barley flour, malted milk and milkshakes, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavoring, malt vinegar)
- food coloring
- Brewer’s Yeast
- rye bread (pumpernickel)
- rye beer
How does gluten impact gut health?
Carbohydrates often contain gluten. There are simple and complex carbohydrates. Complex carbohydrates can be difficult to digest without the right gut enzymes. So the molecules travel to the colon undigested, where gut bacteria feed off of them, releasing gas.
Some people might be sensitive to gluten and experience symptoms after consuming it such as gas, bloating and other digestive upset.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting around 1.4% of the world’s population and affects around 0.5% of Americans. The immune system attacks the lining of the intestines when gluten is ingested. The destruction of the intestinal lining prevents certain nutrients from being absorbed, which leads to malnutrition.
Signs of Celiac disease include:
- Unintentional weight loss
- Gas and bloating
- Abdominal pain
- Nausea and vomiting
For most individuals, gluten does not cause health concerns. In fact, complex carbohydrates contain fiber and these foods act as fuel for the healthy bacteria in the colon. These bacteria are known as the “microbiome”, and play an important role in gut health. A good balance of gut bacteria leads to overall health. A poorly functioning microbiome can happen because of gluten, illness, or prolonged use of antibiotics.
Who should avoid gluten?
People with Celiac disease have to follow a gluten-free diet in order to be healthy and avoid debilitating symptoms. However, it’s estimated that 3 million people have celiac disease. Others who do not have celiac may avoid gluten for other reasons.
People with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) may find relief from a gluten-free diet, as many find difficult to digest complex carbohydrates. We often recommend following a low FODMAP (stands for “fermentable oligo-, di-, mono-saccharides and polyols) diet when someone has IBS. They include gluten as one of the FODMAPs. To put it more simply, FODMAPs are carbohydrates that aren’t as easily digested and end up being fermented by bacteria in the colon.
Those with IBS may not digest certain FODMAPs well, leading to an increase in uncomfortable symptoms such as cramping, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, diarrhea and constipation. IBS is much more common than Celiac disease, impacting around 10 to 15% of Americans. People with sensitivities to gluten don’t develop an immune reaction when they consume gluten, so gluten does not cause inflammation on the digestive tract the same way Celiac disease does.
Should I do an elimination diet?
Doing an elimination diet can be helpful for those with IBS to determine which of the FODMAPs impact them. One person with IBS may not tolerate high-fructose foods, while another might be fine with fructose but not tolerate gluten.
People without Celiac disease or IBS might notice an improvement in markers of their health such as energy, digestion and mood by following a gluten-free diet.
Are there any negative side-effects to avoiding gluten?
There are potential drawbacks of avoiding gluten, especially when it’s not medically necessary. People on gluten-free diets may consume lower amounts of protein, fiber, calcium and iron than people who consume gluten. They also may eat more saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium than people who eat gluten, according to some studies.
Does gluten cause inflammation in the gut?
Gluten can cause inflammation in the gut in people who are sensitive to it, such as those with Celiac disease. Other people may be sensitive to gluten with or without it causing actual inflammation.
How long does it take for your gut to heal from gluten?
If you are intolerant to gluten, it can take several weeks or months for your body to recover after eliminating it from your diet.
Is a gluten-free diet better for your digestive system?
A gluten-free diet is better for people sensitive to gluten, such as those with Celiac disease or Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Otherwise, it may not be helpful in healthy people and can even lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Does bad bacteria feed on gluten?
Both helpful and harmful bacteria can feed off of gluten-containing foods such as wheat, rye and barley, which are carbohydrates that are fermented in the large intestine.
How do I heal my gut after eating gluten?
Eating a diet rich in whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, high-quality protein, nuts, seeds and healthy fats and avoiding gastric irritants like caffeine and alcohol can help heal your gut if you are intolerant of gluten.
Does gluten affect your bowels?
Gluten can cause digestive issues and nutrient malabsorption in people who are sensitive to it, such as those with Celiac disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS). Symptoms include diarrhea, gas, bloating, abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting and constipation.
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