Our culture has a problem with gluten.
I am sometimes asked by clients (or they assume) that I don’t eat gluten because it is “bad” for you. No, I eat gluten, but I eat it where it belongs – in the whole grains where gluten naturally occurs. It doesn’t belong in salad dressings, soy sauce or fruit leather in my book. However, gluten’s role in our diets has become a bit of a sticky quagmire – pun intended. Just Google “gluten free” and see what pops up. There are pros and there are cons and opinions sway wildly and seem just as murky as gluten itself – the word gluten actually comes from Latin meaning glue…ewww.
The purpose of my blog here isn’t to undermine what is for some a health crisis–it’s to simply help people gain a perspective on gluten through the eyes of an Asian medicine and whole foods based nutritionist.
Gluten is “bad” for you
Gluten is a naturally occurring dense protein composite found in barley, rye, wheat, some rices, and spelt. In and of itself, it is not bad. Your relationship to it in your diet, however, might be a problem. Through the last few decades producers of refined foods started using gluten in many foods where it had never appeared before. Why? It binds, it thickens and it creates an even texture. As a stabilizer and flavor enhancer they’ve dumped it into gravies, sauces, vinegar, soups and bouillons. If you’ve ever made homemade broth, yogurt, or soups you know that they sometimes separate. It’s normal, it’s a good thing, however, many manufacturers found that if they add a wee bit of gluten the mixture stays even and smooth – which is so much more appealing to average consumer’s eye. Let’s call it the mass gentrification of foods.
Gluten sensitivity, intolerance and allergies to gluten
As gluten’s use skyrocketed over the last 4 decades, the sticky little protein, once a meager presence in our diet, suddenly rose (another intended pun) to being a constant. In terms of our bodies, continued or repeated exposure to almost anything can lead to irritation or sensitivity. Americans love their light, fluffy breads and pastries or pastas that are chewy and moist. Combine gluten’s constant presence, with weakening digestive vitality, immune deficiencies and a simple lack of food variety, and it is no wonder that millions have developed a sensitivity, intolerance or allergy to gluten. In some cases, the system is so depleted that a person has develops a histamine response to the irritant. Once our bodies reach peak overload with an irritant, something is going to give. Hello Celiac, IBS and Crohn’s, Gallbladder disease, food allergies, chronic sinusitus…the list rolls on.
The next problem on the list is GMO. Gluten’s use in refined foods and the desire for the perfect fluffy croissant has shoved it to the forefront in the genetically modified food categories. Wheat and other glutenous grains are being produced to have higher and higher levels of gluten in them. Some of this hybridization was done with natural farming processes. However, as the industry and demand has grown the genetic modification of grains has increased as well. Personally, I am opposed to GMO’s, but this blog is too short to lunge into the all the reasons why. When we try to patent food and seeds, when farmer’s lose their crops and livelihood because GMO seeds contaminated their fields, we can truly say it’s bad. As a personal rule–if we haven’t been eating the food in question for about 100-150 years–if grandma wouldn’t recognize it–I’m not up for being the guinea pig. Remember white sugar? When it first hit the markets, it was touted as a health food that would make you energetic, slender and heighten your awareness. We now know that overindulgence in white and processed sugar is major player in many health issues–diabetes being a perfect example.
Gluten is damp, damp, damp
Thank you, Asian (Chinese) medicine for food energetics! Viewing the nature of gluten through its energetics creates an even clearer picture of why it has become a major health concern. Gluten forms dampness in the body. Dampness exists on a continuum, from a thin accumulation of fluids like a bit of localized edema to thick, gluey conditions like excess phlegm, yeast and the manifestation of lumps and masses. Dampness is sticky, murky, heavy, congesting and gooey. It clouds the mind, creating inability to focus and study. Like a quagmire or bog, when it becomes too thick, it stagnates even more. Excess mucus congests the small intestines by sticking to the villi, making it so they can’t absorb nutrients and damaging the natural digestive flora balance. Dampness in the colon can cause diarrhea with mucous. Damp patterns in the sinus are what western medicine calls chronic sinusitis, allergies or sinus infections. Imagine the patterns if dampness reaches beyond one or two organ systems and becomes systemic. Everything gets bogged down. Dampness affects the Earth element. Find out more here.
The following is a short list of patterns that have damp as a part of their condition.
Acne – especially pussy forms of acne
Arthritis conditions – especially those that are worse when the barometric pressure changes
Asthma and allergies
ADD and ADHD – phlegm and damp cloud the mind
Candida or any pattern of yeast
Chronic fatigue and most post viral syndromes
Chronic immune deficiency
Headaches – damp headache patterns are worse in damp weather or after you’ve eaten sweet, rich foods and dairy
Gallbladder patterns – hyperactive histamine response, gallbladder attacks, gall stones
Inflammatory conditions – MS,fibromyalgia,arthritis, etc
Lung disorders – any that involve mucus and phlegm
Sinus congestion patterns
Spleen and pancreatic disorders – sugar problems!
Cutting out or limiting gluten
I’ll be honest. Almost any chronic condition, even ones not listed above, improve if gluten is cut out or greatly limited for a while. The idea sends some clients huddling to a corner, hording their pancakes and cronuts. In severe cases, like Celiac and Crohn’s, wheat and glutenous grains may never be able to come back to the diet, however, some clients are able to reintroduce some glutenous foods back into their world after their symptom has cleared and rebuilt. The key is to pull it out glutenous foods and grains for a while to give the system a chance to heal–then we can see what happens. How long this takes depends greatly on the individual’s overall health and the severity of the condition.
The “all grains are bad” myth
Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. We are a culture of wild pendulum swings, and lately all grains (glutenous and non-glutenous) have come under fire. It might be wise for you to cut out all glutenous grains (and maybe even all grains) for a time, but whole grains are an important part of a healthy, sustainable diet. Try some quinoa, millet or teff, they aren’t just for birds, they are nutritional powerhouses. Most grains have a nature of building, so if your pattern is one of needing to eliminate for a while, we may recommend you greatly limit even non-glutenous whole grains for a period of time.
Needing to cut out gluten? The glutenous grains are wheat, barley, spelt, and rye. Oats are not glutenous, however, most oats are processed in plants where glutenous grains are also processed, so watch out. Be sure to read labels if you buy processed foods.
Find out more about gluten free grains here.
Read more about gluten free grains here.
Here’s to a clearer you!