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Ask the Herbalist: Should I Go Gluten-Free?

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Q: Is there any reason I should avoid gluten if I haven’t been diagnosed with gluten intolerance or celiac disease? And is there a difference between these conditions?


A: All of a sudden, it seems that everyone is “going gluten free.” Avoiding gluten — a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye — has become a popular lifestyle decision for a growing number of people, many of whom have been motivated by reasons other than a doctor’s orders.

There is some confusion and controversy surrounding the benefits of the gluten-free lifestyle. Scientists agree that people with the medical diagnosis of celiac disease benefit tremendously from eliminating gluten from their diets, but what they don’t all agree on is whether others — including people with milder “sensitivity” or “intolerance” to gluten — benefit as well.  Most of us have been told that whole grains are an important part of a healthy diet, and some experts have even gone so far as to caution that cutting gluten out could have negative health consequences. So why are so many people choosing to go “against the grain?”

Celiac disease is an auto-immune condition and severe form of gluten intolerance that is a result of the immune system attacking the intestinal lining when gluten is consumed. The immune system responds to gluten as a pathogen; it doesn’t recognize gluten as a substance that is beneficial to the body. This attack leads to inflammation and damage to the intestinal villi (small hair-like projections that line the intestinal wall. As a result, absorption of nutrients through food and supplements is seriously compromised.

Many people who do not have celiac disease are affected by sensitivity to grains that contain gluten such as wheat, barley, rye, spelt and kamut. Scientists believe that this form of gluten intolerance is not due to an immune response like celiac, and therefore may not lead to auto-immune issues in the future. Current research is showing that gluten sensitivity may be due to intestinal permeability (leaky gut), which allows large protein molecules to enter the bloodstream.

In my opinion, sensitivity to gluten is a milder form of celiac disease. Although the mainstream medical community does not recognize non-celiac gluten intolerance as being related to the immune system, I disagree. Gluten intolerance may not initially be related to the immune system, but its effects are. Both celiac disease and milder forms of gluten intolerance have similar symptoms such as bloating, abdominal cramping, gas, mental fogginess, fatigue, depression and anxiety. Continuing to consume gluten when you have a gluten sensitivity forces your body to expend more energy to break down what it can of the substance, while the rest passes through the intestinal wall. Once the gluten passes through the intestinal wall, the immune system mounts a response as though it were attacking a foreign substance. Pain, inflammation, and a variety of other unpleasant symptoms result.

Unfortunately, only a small portion of people who are gluten intolerant can be identified by blood tests, whereas it is easier to test for celiac. When I suspected that I might be sensitive to gluten, rather than go get tested, I opted for the simplest test possible, an elimination diet.

Years ago, almost every time I ate a meal equivalent in volume to a small salad bowl, I would feel bloated, heavy and puffy from edema. My herbalist suggested I go on a gluten-free diet for a couple of weeks, and then slowly reintroduce gluten into my diet and see what happened. I did just that. Not only did I learn that I was gluten intolerant, but also that when I add gluten to my diet, I am unable to function cognitively. I am gluten-free to this day.

On a side note, a couple of years ago, I learned that by consuming raw milk, I am better able to tolerate gluten in tiny amounts, as compared to before. Raw milk boosts the immune system so that it is not so sensitive to gluten. And, it actually has a delicious, creamy flavor with no aftertaste. Though personally, I prefer to stay gluten free (my body just likes it better that way),I still enjoy the benefits of raw milk. As the word “raw” indicates, raw milk is not pasteurized, irradiated, homogenized or in any way heated above the body temperature of the animal (cow, goat or sheep). The benefits of raw milk that are not found in conventional milk are plentiful. You can read more about the host of benefits associated with raw milk at www.realmilk.org.

Gluten intolerance actually afflicts many people. (It’s estimated that 3 million people in the U.S. have been diagnosed with celiac, and many more have not been diagnosed.) Gluten is difficult to digest, whether you realize you are having difficulty or not. As a result, bacteria or yeast may begin growing in the digestive tract resulting in symptoms throughout the body.

If you notice you have any digestive distress, mental fogginess or drastic emotional shifts one hour to two days after eating foods that contain gluten, consider going on a gluten-free diet to find out for sure how gluten affects you. There are a number of chronic health issues, such as autism, diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis, for which following a gluten-free diet may lead to positive shifts..

Even if you know you are not gluten intolerant, it is worth giving a gluten-free diet a try, or even just minimizing the amount of gluten you consume daily. Due to the predominance of wheat in the American diet, the majority of wheat grown in the U.S., is genetically modified, and therefore not in the natural state that the body readily recognizes. The European Union will not purchase genetically modified wheat (or other genetically modified foods) because they realize that this is not how it should be grown.

There are many grains that can be used in lieu of wheat or gluten-containing grains. These gluten-free grains include: amaranth, buckwheat (no relation to wheat or gluten), gluten-free oats, corn, rice and teff. These grains can be made into flour and combined to create a unique blend that you enjoy using in recipes.

It is easy to find gluten-free recipes online and pre-packaged foods at health food stores that cater to people following a gluten-free diet. One of my favorite gluten-free recipe sites is Gluten Free Mommy. Many people, myself included, who go gluten-free realize how much healthier and clearer-headed they feel once they change their diet.

I will leave you with a recipe for gluten-free flour that was passed on to me from a friend of mine. It can be used in many recipes for baked goods such as breads, cakes, muffins and cupcakes.

Gluten Free Four

3 C. brown rice flour

3 C. white rice flour

1 C. potato starch

1 C. tapioca flour

2 ½ tsp. xanthan gum

Blend all ingredients together and store in the refrigerator if you will not use it within a month.

Sources:

“Gluten Sensitivity” retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gluten_sensitivity#Gluten_sources on 5/24/10

Fresh, Unprocessed (Raw) Whole Milk: Safety, Health and Economic Concerns. Retrieved from http://www.realmilk.com/rawmilkoverview.html on 5/28/10

“Food intolerance” retrieved from http://www.foodintol.com/celiac.asp on 5/24/10

“Leaky gut” retrieved from http://www.mdheal.org/leakygut.htm on 5/24/10

Raw Milk FAQ. Retrieved from http://www.raw-milk-facts.com/Raw_Milk_FAQ.html on 5/28/10

Stop Genetically Modified Wheat retrieved from http://www.organicconsumers.org/wheat/ on 5/28/10


Lissa’s passion for educating people about the healing powers of herbs led her to obtain a Masters of Science in Herbal Medicine from the Tai Sophia School of the Healing Arts. She has also studied nutrition and women’s health extensively, and has trained as a doula.

Have a question for Lissa? Send her an email and she’ll get back to you!

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12 responses to “Ask the Herbalist: Should I Go Gluten-Free?”

  1. […] cooking is far from boring! Going gluten-free may be a little confusing at first, but it gets easier, especially if you focus on whole foods that […]

  2. Joshua says:

    Lissa – Thanks for this wonderful article. I've been very interested in experimenting with reducing or eliminating gluten from my diet. I think this article has convinced me to finally give it a try. I've heard incredibly positive things from those who have. I am going to set aside 1 month this summer to go gluten-free and see how it feels. As a vegetarian going on 10 years, I know this will mean sacrifices at first but like anything you get used to it. And if it makes me feel better day in and day out, then it will surely be worth it!

    • Lissa says:

      That sounds like a great idea and yes, it may be difficult at first. As you continue with it, you'll discover new meal opportunities. Many natural food markets also have frozen and shelf stable gluten free options too, many of them tasty! Good luck and keep me posted.

  3. MaryJane says:

    This is super informative. I was diagnosed with mild IBS a few years ago but I think I might just be sensitive to some foods. Sometimes I think my doctor calls it IBS only so they could sell me more drugs. :) Ill definitely give this a shot since I know rice is a safe food for me, while wheat sometimes can make me chug a pepto bottle.

    I also like the info about raw milk. I tried it once on a field trip to a farm, but at 8 years old, I thought it tasted weird/gross. Who knew that it was because we were conditioned to drink processed stuff and the taste is altered so dramatically.

  4. Nice article. I have been GF for 7 years and am enjoying many positive changes in my health.

    • Lissa says:

      That's great to read. I've been gluten-free for at least three years and cannot imagine going back. The health benefits have been endless. Thank you for sharing Anne.

  5. […] disease that neurologist Dr. David Perlmutter is referring to is gluten sensitivity. As he explains in an article that appeared earlier this week on the Huffington Post, although more […]

  6. I have gluten-intolerance and just knew I had it when I recognized several symptoms showing on my body. Then, my wife found out that she also has gluten-intolerance. So, it is great to start cutting of gluten intake as early as today to prevent the discomfort of gluten-intolerance.

    • Casie says:

      Yes, It makes a huge difference. How are you adjusting? Any favorite recipes or products?

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  8. […] disease, an autoimmune disorder that necessitates complete avoidance of gluten-containing foods. Gluten-free diets, however, have become increasingly popular in recent years, leading to a rapidly expanding market […]

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