Gluten gets a lot of hype and attention these days, and there's good reason why. Gluten is a type of protein found in grains of wheat, barley and rye. Each of these grains always contain gluten, but gluten is not found in all grains. You might be familiar with gluten if you avoid it due to dietary restrictions or have a more serious health condition affected directly by gluten, known as celiac disease. An even more serious condition, gluten ataxia, is when gluten affects the part of the brain called the cerebellum.
Whether you have a dietary preference of avoiding gluten, or experience the more detrimental effects of celiac disease or gluten ataxia, it's necessary to have a guide of gluten-free dietary recommendations to know what is safe to eat.
Fruits and vegetables - when buying whole fruits and vegetables, there is no risk of gluten being added to these foods, plus you get an entire array of nutrients, vitamins and minerals.
Healthy Fats - choose sources from ghee, coconut oil and coconut milk, grass-fed butter, olive oil, avocado and avocado oil, flaxseed oil, and hemp oil, to name a few.
High-Quality Proteins - eggs, wild-caught fish, lean poultry, and grass-fed beef are all good options for providing protein, omega-3 fatty acids and some minerals. Legumes and beans are an excellent vegetarian source of plant-based protein as well.
Nuts and Seeds - Different nuts and seeds provide protein, fiber, and more healthy fats like omega-3s. Almonds, pecans, walnuts, pumpkin, sunflower, chia, flax, and hemp seeds are healthy options, and can even be found in nut and seed butters as well.
Gluten-Free Whole Grains - Not all grains contain gluten, so its important to distinguish which ones are safe to eat on a gluten-free diet. All kinds of rice, certified gluten-free oats (some can be contaminated with gluten if grown in the same field as wheat), quinoa, buckwheat, teff, sorghum, and amaranth.
Perhaps being gluten free is more of a special dietary preference for many people that don't necessarily experience the negative effects from eating gluten. Many processed foods on our grocery shelves today contain gluten; crackers, cookies, breads, packaged foods, canned goods, sauces, dressings, frozen items. Eating a gluten-free diet can help reduce consuming processed foods, which in turn can improve overall well-being as well as physical and mental performance. Focusing your diet on eating whole ingredients can naturally reduce the amount of gluten you consume, while increasing the amount of nutrients you get from eating fruits, vegetables, healthy proteins, grass-fed dairy, nuts, seeds, legumes, beans, gluten-free grains (like oats), and spices and herbs.
There is still a possibility for a person to experience some of the symptoms common with having celiac disease without having the actual diagnosis. Gluten intolerance or sensitivity is now a formally recognized condition known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) that includes those who test negative for celiac disease but report having some of the symptoms and discomforts associated with that condition. They typically don't have the extreme symptoms, but a range of gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal symptoms including: abdominal pain, headaches, brain fog, bloating, etc. In general, these people with NCGS report feeling better after removing gluten from their diets.
In mainstream Western medicine, it is reported that only about 1% of the United States population are diagnosed with celiac disease. Despite this very low rate of occurrence, there is evidence to believe that many more people go undiagnosed of celiac disease. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation that damages tissue within the small intestine when gluten is consumed.
The small intestine is where most of nutrients from food is absorbed, so when there is damage to the small intestine due to celiac disease, nutrient absorption becomes nearly impossible. There are many symptoms due to the effects of this disease, including: bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, malnutrition, brain fog, chronic fatigue, joint pain, chronic headaches, thinning hair, mood changes, seizures.
Monica C. began experiencing symptoms of celiac disease as early as the 3rd grade.
As a young girl, she was always sick and in and out of doctors, although no one diagnosed her correctly. Her main symptoms were stomach pain, migraines, and joint pain. As a young adult, Monica backpacked across Europe and "lived off bread" from different European countries. Her symptoms subsided and she felt great.
Once she was back in the Unites States, Monica's symptoms came flooding back, but still couldn't pinpoint the cause. "My aha moment was when I was eating a bagel loaded with butter." Monica recalled. "I was in the car with my boyfriend, who had been familiar with someone having celiac disease symptoms. While I was doubled over in stomach pain, he suggested having a doctor get a blood sample and that the cause could be from gluten. That moment changed the course of my life and my "body began healing."
The most common way to diagnose celiac disease is through a blood test or a small biopsy of the bowel by a doctor. The best treatment for celiac disease is by following a gluten-free diet, which is considered a medical nutrition therapy.
A rare, but more serious condition caused by eating gluten is known as gluten ataxia. Gluten ataxia is an autoimmune disorder in which gluten antibodies accidentally attack a part of the brain called the cerebellum. The cerebellum is the part of the brain responsible for movement and directly impacts balance, speech, posture, walking and running. This can affect general motor movement, walking, steadiness, coordination, speaking, vision, and nerve health in hands, feet, and limbs.
Although gluten ataxia is a sensitivity to gluten, generally people with gluten ataxia do not have digestive symptoms from consuming gluten. The disease has a slow progression, which can be reversed by eliminating gluten, but if left on its own, some of the symptoms can become permanent.
Jeremy Cowart, a prolific photographer and businessman, began experiencing symptoms of gluten ataxia as many as 13 years before knowing what was going on.
Jeremey's number one symptom was his balance - or lack thereof. He couldn't walk from one room to another without looking for support or holding onto something. Jeremy thought he was just a clumsy person, but his balance began to worsen over the years. It took a series of doctors to recognize what was happening. "One doctor told me something was attacking my cerebellum. That was a wake up call for me," Jeremy recounts. He and his family made diet and lifestyle changes, including adopting a gluten-free diet. They bought juicers and blenders to help facilitate a healthier way of eating. His speech was also affected by gluten ataxia, as the cerebellum is responsible for speech movement.
Since becoming gluten free, and incorporating healing foods like celery juice in his daily regiment, all of his symptoms are noticeably improving. "My balance and speech are returning to they way they were years ago. My hand-eye coordination is improving, which only a short time ago I could hardly play basketball with friends." Jeremy also struggled with his weight, which would fluctuate up and down and led him to try extreme dieting.
Removing gluten from his diet not only improved the symptoms of ataxia, but stabilized his weight as well. Now Jeremy enjoys a healthier lifestyle, and doesn't even miss eating what he used to. "There are more choices now than ever to stick to a gluten-free diet, whether in the grocery store or being out and about," Jeremy says. "Being gluten free has changed my life, and I wouldn't trade it for anything seeing how much my health has improved."
If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms, you should seek a medical professional for advice. These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA.