Ask a Naturopath: Why do so many people react to gluten?

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With gluten dominating headlines lately, and “gluten-free” labels throughout the grocery store, many people are wondering how prevalent gluten reactions really are. Although only 1 percent of the general population has celiac disease, a systemic autoimmune disease triggered by gluten peptides, many people are experimenting with gluten-free diets and exploring the protein’s impact on their digestion. While there isn’t a lot of scientific data to support the prevalence of gluten-free diets, there are some theories to explain to link between gluten and digestive complaints.

Our understanding of the gastrointestinal ecosystem is evolving as research continues to reveal its complexity. The mechanism responsible for food reactions is not entirely understood. One compelling theory comes from Massachusetts-based researcher Alessio Fasano, MD. Fasano and his team have discovered that gliadin, the primary component of gluten, triggers the release of a substance called zonulin in the gut.

Zonulin regulates the opening of the tight junctions between intestinal cells. When these tight junctions are compromised, intestinal permeability is increased, predisposing the body to a variety of inflammatory conditions. The zonulin-driven opening of intestinal cells is thought to be an evolutionary defense mechanism that allows water in to flush out harmful bacteria and their toxins when necessary. Fasano’s team has also found that zonulin levels drop when gluten is eliminated from the diet.

With this mechanism being the leading theory to explain gluten reactivity, it seems logical that the hybridization of wheat to dramatically increase gluten content, as well as the increased consumption of wheat in the West, are both responsible for the apparent “surge” in gluten reactivity.

If you’re experiencing gastrointestinal symptoms or suspect that you may be sensitive to gluten, talk to your health care provider for guidance.

Bone up on gluten: Don’t miss A Naturopathic Perspective on Gluten, and stay tuned for 5 Gluten-Free Grains.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.