What is gluten and why do we care?


Gluten includes several proteins that are common to grains. Wheat, barley and rye are the three main gluten-containing grains. The type of gluten in barley is hordein and the one in rye is secalin. The glutens in barley and rye are weaker than wheat gluten, and therefore easier to digest.

Sorghum, corn, buckwheat, oat, amaranth, and rice are some gluten-free grains. Beans and their flours are gluten-free. In the U.S., soy and oats are often processed in the same facility as wheat, so unless they are labeled “gluten-free” there is usually some gluten contamination.

Why has gluten recently become such a major problem in the U.S.?

If we are in good health, we should be able to completely digest these proteins in reasonable quantities. Recently in the U.S. there has been a dramatic rise in digestive complaints, often labeled IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), food allergies, and celiac disease. This rise is correlated with a recent dramatic increase in the amount of gluten in our diet. This increase is largely caused by a snowball effect of the following four factors:

  1. We do not combine as many grains in our bread products as we have in the past. We now almost exclusively prefer wheat over barley, corn, oats, rye, amaranth or sorghum.
  2. In the U.S. we use almost entirely a single species of hybridized wheat (T. aestivum) and over the last 80 years, we have cultivated it for higher and higher gluten content.
  3. Almost all of the gluten in wheat is located in the endosperm, or center of the kernel. When we refine the wheat grain to create white flour (which is still referred to as “wheat”), we increase the gluten content per pound by eliminating the wheat germ and the wheat bran.
  4. Preparation methods (such as kneading and quick-rising yeast) further increase gluten content. Slow rising allows for more fermentation which produces protylitic enzymes, which are essential for digesting protein. This process is more common in Europe, which is partly why many gluten-sensitive people can eat bread in Europe without discomfort.

Other aggravating factors of poor protein digestion include a deficiency or excess of hydrochloric acid in the stomach, stress (physical, emotional, environmental), deficient chewing (chewing stimulates digestive enzymes), overeating, excess sugar and carbohydrates in the diet, and nutritional deficiencies. In addition, almost all of us living the United States have some degree of dysbiosis, an imbalance of natural, beneficial bacteria which aid our digestion. Gluten is a large protein strand that is relatively difficult to completely digest. If, due to the effects of dysbiosis, we are not digesting it completely, but keep eating more and more of it, the problem can cascade into serious digestive distress and a generally compromised immune system. All of these digestive problems are commonly treated and corrected in my clinic.

For more information on dysbiosis, read my article ‘Friendly’ bacteria and probiotics.

If weak gluten digestion continues over time, it can lead to celiac disease. Celiac disease is a serious condition (believed to be autoimmune) when even tiny amounts of gluten damage the digestive tract and cause sometime extreme discomfort.  Researchers at the Mayo Clinic tested blood samples taken from 9,133 young Air Force recruits in the 1950s and found that only one in 700 had undiagnosed celiac disease at that time. Tests on subjects exactly the same age in a 2009 study led by Mayo gastroenterologist Joseph Murray, found that the rate was nearly five times as high today.

I don’t recommend any diet that is heavily based on grains, but lowering the levels of refined flour and gluten in our diets is a helpful step to make if we wish to enjoy prolonged health.