Gluten, wheat and your body

Everyone seems worried about gluten in the diet and yet few people really even know what gluten is and how it affects one’s body.

Gluten is a protein that is found in various foods — wheat being one of them. Gluten creates an auto-immune reaction in those people who have celiac disease. And although 30 to 40 percent of people have the genetic propensity to potentially develop celiac disease, only about 1 to 3 percent of people actually do. There is some thought that the friendly bacteria living in the gut might confer some protection as they help regulate the immune system, control intestinal permeability, digest food and synthesize nutrient such as vitamin K2. The friendly gut flora is significantly negatively affected by the ingestion of gluten.

If you have celiac disease, then gluten must be strictly avoided. Inflammation is the natural response of the immune system to any type of injury. Inflammation in the digestive tract loosens the junctions between cells in the gut wall. This has often been described as “leaky gut” syndrome, which means that rather than just allowing digested food into the bloodstream, other things that you may have swallowed — such as viruses, bacteria and indigestible molecules such as dust and dirt — also pass into the blood rather than out the back way. Gluten also causes this process to accelerate by stimulating the release of a protein called zonulin. Zonulin contributes to the leaky gut syndrome as well. This intestinal permeability is a serious issue because it is an essential factor in the development of autoimmune diseases.

One of the components that passes through a leaky gut and gets into the blood stream and results in autoimmune diseases is gluten itself. A component of gluten is gliadin and in the bloodstream it cascades a problem termed “molecular mimicry.”

It means that the body starts forming antibodies against its own cells. Gliadin looks to the immune system a lot like the cells that line the gut, antibodies are formed that can’t distinguish between the foreign protein or the body’s own cells and the attack is on.

Gluten related inflammation may also be a factor in the development of Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. Of course, there are many other autoimmune diseases that research has linked to gluten including autoimmune thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes, fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune liver and skin diseases.

In people with celiac disease, gluten causes immediate and severe symptoms such as diarrhea and/or constipation, heartburn, abdominal pain, bloating, gas, foul-smelling bowel movements and sometimes vomiting. Those people who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the symptoms are similar. People who are not sensitive to gluten specifically may experience the inflammatory action of other components of wheat (wheat germ agglutinin and amylase trypsin inhibitors) that result in relapsing gut issues.

Wheat germ agglutinin is an inflammatory immune disrupting protein found in wheat that differs from gluten.

Although they have similar effects and are both found in wheat, this is important for those of us who do not gluten sensitivity or frank celiac disease. Amylase trypsin inhibitors can provoke an inflammatory response in the gastro-intestinal tract by stimulating immune cells. This occurs in people regardless of whether they have celiac disease of not. It is a completely different issue.

Various authors have noted that “brain fog” and fatigue are both symptoms of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as well as skin diseases. The most well-documented gluten-related skin problem is dermatitis herpetiformis. The symptoms include itchy red rash with raised blisters, and typically the disease emerges in a person’s 20s. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can result in skin problems very similar to eczema, psoriasis or dermatitis herpetiformis.

Gluten is found in wheat and wheat germ agglutinin and amylase trypsin inhibitors are as well. Gluten is also found in spelt, Kamut, farro and Bulgur and barley and rye.

It is also found in breadfruit and could be hiding in such prepared foods as soup, meat substitutes, energy bars, salad dressing, potato chips and soy sauce. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms described or are thinking about going gluten free to see if you feel better, it is worth the experiment. A couple of weeks off wheat might help you feel better and if it doesn’t make a difference for you, then you know you are not gluten sensitive. Good to know!


Dr. Jane Riley, EdD, is a certified personal trainer, nutritional adviser and behavior change specialist. She can be reached at, (808) 212-8119,


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