What is gluten? And why do some people avoid eating it?

by | Nov 13, 2023 | gut health and digestion

Recent reports by YouGov and Mintel have found that in the UK people are buying an increasing amount of gluten-free foods. This is because many people now believe that gluten is bad for them. But what is gluten and should anyone avoid eating it?

Problematic grains

Gluten is the general name for certain proteins in some cereal grains. These grains are wheat, rye, barley and triticale. While these grains are staples in the typical western diet, many people now avoid eating them. Manufacturers have caught on and are producing an increasing number of products to satisfy the demand for gluten-free.

Some would say that these diets are just another fad, but as a herbalist, I hear many people say they feel better without gluten in their diet. But it is not so easy to give up gluten-containing foods.

The typical diet in the UK and other western countries relies heavily on staples such as wheat. Indeed many people eat wheat-containing products three times a day. Cereal for breakfast, a sandwich for lunch and pasta for dinner is a common theme.

For some people, eating these foods causes no problems at all. However, other people notice that they have some symptoms such as bloating after eating bread for example.

In fact, gluten can cause serious health issues for some people. For example, coeliac disease is a common autoimmune disease. The result of a reaction to gluten in which the body’s immune system attacks and destroys cells lining the intestine. Typical symptoms are bloating, abdominal pain, and chronic diarrhoea.

Some people with coeliac disease may have symptoms in other parts of their body. Such as fatigue, weight loss, rashes, infertility, bone pain and headaches. And it can take time to diagnose coeliac disease in these people. In fact, in the UK only 24% of people with coeliac disease have a diagnosis. Leaving many people at risk of long term consequences such as malnutrition or intestinal cancer.

Non-coeliac gluten sensitivity

In the past, some people have known they reacted to certain grains but when tested were found not to have coeliac disease. For this reason, gluten sensitivity has been suspected by clinicians for years and now the evidence has been found. This condition is now called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS. Though NCGS is an immune reaction, people with this condition do not have the typical damage to the intestinal lining found in coeliac disease. But, people with NCGHS can have similar digestive symptoms such as bloating, pain and diarrhoea. Other more generalised symptoms are also common and include fatigue, anxiety, brain fog, rashes and numbness.

It appears that in NCGS the immune reaction is to other protein fragments than those in coeliac disease. But in addition, the immune reaction includes raised antibodies to microbial fragments in the bloodstream. This suggests that the problem involves a ‘leaky gut’. When the intestinal wall becomes too porous it allows protein fragments through that can trigger an immune reaction, leading to generalised symptoms.

For coeliac disease, a gluten-free diet is the only treatment. However, the research on NCGS found that a gluten-free diet was not always successful at eliminating symptoms. Suggesting that the leakiness continued even after the gluten consumption was stopped. In this case, as a herbalist, in addition to suggesting a gluten-free diet, I would focus on healing and sealing the gut with diet and lifestyle changes and selected herbal medicines.

And now I’d like to hear from you.  Have you tried a gluten-free diet? How easy was it for you to make this change? Did you notice a change in your symptoms?


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