Gluten: A Sticky Subject
As a gluten-free dieter, I’m well aware of the pop culture hype surrounding the word “gluten.” Many people like myself have taken the full brunt of questions, criticisms, admiration and disappointed looks from friends whose delicious baked goods we have to turn down. I understand the controversy lying at the surface of this subject, but I’m writing because I believe there’s valuable new information being unveiled at the forefront of gastrointestinal pathophysiology that brings clarity and credibility to the plight of many who avoid gluten. If you question the science behind this trendy diet, rest assured: so do I. That’s why I dove deep into the current research and am here to present you with some of the latest findings.
First, it’s important to define some clinical terms related to gluten sensitivity. Around 1 percent of the population has celiac disease—an autoimmune condition where the body treats gluten as a foreign substance and responds by attacking the gut lining. A wheat allergy is a food allergy which can result in anaphylaxis, and isn’t the same as celiac disease.
Gluten sensitivity typically occurs when a person who tests negative for celiac disease still exhibits stomach distress, diarrhea and other symptoms associated with it after consuming gluten. Scientists are currently working to understand why some people without celiac disease still show a sensitivity to gluten. A 2015 article written by Hollon et al at Harvard University Medical School found that gliadin, a protein in gluten, increased gut permeability in both the normal population and those with celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity.
A 2016 article by Uhde et al at Columbia University discovered a new way of diagnosing gluten sensitivity by its activation of the immune system in response to gliadin. It’s hypothesized that gluten both damages the gut lining and leads to inflammation in these patients. Chronic inflammation, which may be triggered by repeated exposure to gluten, is implicated in a variety of metabolic diseases such as diabetes and cancer, and can cause damage to the brain.
An important regulator of inflammation, IL-10, is notably absent in gluten-sensitive and celiac patients. IL-10 is important in metabolism and its absence can lead to insulin resistance, obesity, type II diabetes and other downstream diseases.
While there’s still much work to be done in discovering the mechanisms causing gluten sensitivity, these and similar studies are exciting in-roads to objectively discuss the effects of gluten on our health. I believe it’s important to study the progress scientists are making in this field, rather than inserting an opinion too quickly on whether a friend has a valid reason to stop eating bread.
Erynn Johnson is a senior studying chemistry.