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So...what exactly is Gluten?

Do people sigh and roll their eyes when you say ‘its gluten free!’ as if you have decided to join some weird cult? They say ‘gluten free? You mean taste free!’ or ‘that’s just a fad’ and then when the newspapers have a headline grabber such as ‘Gluten free diet increases your risk of heart disease’ they smile gleefully and say ‘ I told you so’ without bothering to discover what the research really says?

It is widely acknowledged that people with coeliac disease need to avoid gluten but what if you have what is known as non-coeliac gluten sensitivity? You know that somehow, in some way, that when you eat gluten it just doesn’t agree with you. It may be digestive issues or it may affect you mentally such as making you more emotional or even mildly depressed or perhaps aggressive. Research is beginning to prove that you are right and it is not all in your imagination.

What is gluten anyway? And why all the fuss?! You know you probably shouldn’t eat it, right? But you have no idea why not! That’s why we are here- to pore over the research for you and try to make sense of the thing… because our whole ethos is based around how the food we eat is not only handled by our body but the consequences of this. There are consequences of eating gluten and we want to share them :)

Let’s begin the story with a molecule present in our digestive system with the very weird name of zonulin (not quite sure how these names are arrived at but at least it’s memorable!). Zonulin has a starring role in this narrative but we might need to digress a little before understanding its significance… bear with!


Our digestive system is actually one of our main contacts with the outside world (skin being another) and so they need to have a protective role as well as a digestive one. The gut lining, while helping us to absorb nutrients into our bloodstream, needs to be able to protect us from any nasty invaders that might make their way in via what we eat. Alessio Fasano, who discovered zonulin, describes the intestine, or gut, as a large tube lined with a single layer of cells – like a wall- with little gates between the cells that open and close, on command, to bring in the nutrients and keep out the bad guys. This has to be a very quick manoeuvre and zonulin is the guy that manages this tightly controlled process. The only problem is -zonulin is a great guy- in small doses – we all know someone like that! Too much zonulin and things get out of control; this results in the gates getting stuck in the open position! Yikes! End result- the gut becomes ‘leaky’ and can’t control its borders. Hence the term ‘leaky gut’! With access to all areas, potential enemies enter the bloodstream and our immune systems put their troops on alert.

Now all this sounds pretty nasty and no one likes to think of their gut leaking and a war breaking out but it is potentially this process that is the source of most auto immune and inflammatory conditions, perhaps even as far as most health conditions, we experience today.

Two of the biggest triggers of zonulin are bacteria and……. yes you guessed it: gluten! Let’s be clear, this affects all of us – not just the chosen few…

Non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)

How can gluten make you feel emotional, moody, anxious or even aggressive?

Some people with NCGS suffer digestive problems (without the damage experienced by celiac sufferers) but some people find that eating gluten makes them anxious, depressed, moody or even emotional – but how?

We need to go back to zonulin at this point. Remember how he left the doors open which resulted in the immune system going on attack? Well sometimes some of the troops can get a bit over zealous, start creating mayhem (inflammation) which results in genes getting switched on that shouldn’t – ones that affect our mental health.

Sometimes the gluten might affect our serotonin levels; you know the feel good hormonethe one that makes us feel happy.

Recent research found that gluten may influence mood by interfering with the serotonin pathway (just the way something is made in our bodies). Serotonin needs tryptophan (an essential amino acid that the body can’t make itself that you get from eggs, salmon, turkey and bananas – to name but a few foods) in order to be produced. In another piece of research participants started the study with low levels of tryptophan before following a gluten free diet. After 1 year on a gluten free diet their tryptophan levels along with their serotonin levels had increased substantially. Glyphosate (remember?) has also been found to deplete levels of tryptophan.

Now stay with us as there is a bit more science to come!

When there is uncontrolled inflammation in the body sustained over a period of time, the body will instruct the adrenal glands (those guys who manage our fight or flight response) to release cortisol (which has many jobs but one of them is putting out fires!) to try to reduce it. High levels of cortisol can also divert tryptophan from making serotonin and rather divert it towards what is known as the ‘kynurenine’ pathway. It’s complicated we know.. This is then metabolised (changed) into something called quinolinic acid; now this acid is neurotoxic (damaging to the brain and nervous system) and has been closely linked to brain and other neurodegenerative disorders such as Alzheimers.

Yes but surely not eating gluten is bad – what about that scary headline in the newspaper recently?

Scary headlines

We are all influenced by newspaper headlines, which generally misreport the findings of the latest research just to grab our attention. We may suddenly fear that a gluten free diet could damage our health. There was a study in the news recently which claimed that eating a gluten free diet put you at risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD). Typically the media had opted for a sensationalist headline instead of reporting it accurately.

The conclusion of the research was actually that ‘a long term dietary intake of gluten was not associated with risk of coronary heart disease’. The link between a gluten free diet and risk of heart disease was then made under the assumption that if you are avoiding gluten you potentially have a reduced consumption of whole grains which may then affect cardiovascular risk; consumption of whole grains being associated with reduced heart disease. This is association and not causation. There is a difference. Basically the study did not say that a gluten free diet causes CVD. Celiac disease is associated with an increased risk of CVD but that risk is reduced once a gluten free diet is adopted. The reasoning for this is that inflammation is reduced in celiac disease by removing gluten; inflammation plays a major part in the development of CVD.

But what actually is gluten and haven’t we been eating it for thousands of years without any problem? Why should it affect us all of a sudden? These are valid questions and that’s why we like to research on your behalf and come up with answers for you but you need to keep reading to find out!

We know it’s a long haul but do it in bite size pieces – you don’t need to read it all in one go; Download the full article and you can take your time.

Download the full article here