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Gluten-Free…Is It For Me?

Go ahead honey, it's gluten freeFOOD HAS become an increasingly complicated topic in our country and the world.  Despite the fact that we have a seeming abundance of choices here in the U.S., really when you study the ingredients in most packaged foods you will likely find either wheat, dairy, corn, soy or sugar on the list.  It is therefore no wonder that these foods are causing increasing issues in our bodies and our health.  And it now seems that most of us are trying to avoid one or more of these food groups in an attempt to address our health concerns.  So let‘s explore gluten shall we?

First of all what is gluten?  It is the protein element of a group of grains which include wheat, barley, rye, spelt and oats (oats have a minimal amount of gluten in comparison to others listed, so are tolerated by some who are otherwise gluten-sensitive).  When you look at a grain it’s basically a seed structured kind of like an egg.  There is the outside portion (the shell) which is fibrous and protective…this is called the bran or husk.  Then there is a large inside portion, the endosperm (the white), which contains protein and carbohydrate; this is where gluten is found.  And finally the germ (yolk) which is the fatty portion where new plant growth would initiate if it were planted.  It is a perfect package of growth potential and nutrients all protected and awaiting its destiny to create more…

So how did this perfect package transform into the beast of gluten wreaking havoc on our bodies?  Well sadly that’s our fault.  Basically we are impatient with our food supply and want to pick it earlier and make it into something easier than a whole grain.  Traditionally harvested grains would have been cut and let to sit in the field to ‘mature’ allowing the process of germination to occur.  During germination the little germ would consume the endosperm in its attempt to initiate growth which would in turn lower gluten content.  Along we come with our combine harvesters which pick and process the grain so efficiently that this development never gets a chance.  Next we mill these somewhat immature grains often removing the husk (fiber) and germ (fat) so all we are left with is the endosperm; this carbohydrate and protein portion is ground into a fine white powder which is now…flour.  This highly processed flour is a tiny chopped up particulate of its original form and without the fiber and fat the absorption is much faster and far less balanced.  Those admirable people who soak and grind their own grains are returning to the old tradition, which is entirely possible for you too!  For most, however, this is far too arduous a way to get that loaf of bread, tortilla, cracker or other staple we seek…we simply don’t have the time to eat this way.  So now we just simply avoid it!?!  And what about other grains like rice, corn, quinoa, amaranth, and buckwheat?  Yippee they’re gluten-free!

OK so the processing sounds a bit un-natural but why gluten?  Well proteins are what the immune system recognizes when roaming the body looking for invaders.  AND the reaction of gluten in the digestive system can cause an inflammatory response in the cells, among other things.  Once you have gut inflammation the chances for ideal digestion declines; more gluten passes between the inflamed cells rather than through them and therefore the chance for immune dysfunction increases due to increased exposure…voila leaky gut, gluten-intolerance, auto-immunity, etc, etc, etc.  And I’m picking on gluten here but I could easily be writing this article about casein in dairy, albumin in eggs, soy, corn, you get the picture?

So gluten-free, that’s the answer?  Yes and no.  For those with Celiac disease yes.  For the rest of us, maybe, for some time.  There are a variety of tests both conventional and not that can identify the severity of the problem and the road to recovery…so seek some advice if you need more guidance.  I think the conversation we are not having in this gluten-free craze is what about healing the gut?  What are we doing to correct the improper digestion and inflammation?  Did you know that the cells of the entire digestive tract regrow every 120 days?  That means that in 3 months there is a distinct possibility of having a whole new digestive system!  Sadly in my experience it’s not usually that fast, but I think regrowth and regeneration are absolutely possible.  But yes to heal the gut we have to remove the offenders at least for some time.  We also need nutrients like l-glutamine, antioxidants, probiotics, and herbs like slippery elm powder, turmeric and elderberry.  We all need to eat more mindfully both in our food choices and sitting, chewing, tasting, and assimilating our food as best we can.

Another tool to enlist is stress reduction as any one of you I’m sure can attest; high stress makes for troubled digestion.  It’s summer!  Enjoy time at the beach with your family or your dog.  Putter around the yard in awe of the growth that surrounds us here on the coast.  Go camping and leave your cell phone off and just enjoy the stars.  These are the things that will heal your spirit and your body.  This is all just scratching the surface in terms of healing modalities available, but I hope I have shed some light on gluten and gut health because gluten-free may not be the only key.

DO something you love, BE with someone you love, EAT your vegetables, DRINK clean water, BREATHE deeply and MOVE your body EVERYDAY!

By Tracy Erfling

Dr. Tracy Erfling is a naturopath physician in the Lower Columbia Region. Questions? erflingnd@hotmail.com