What You Really Need to Know About Gluten & Food Sensitivities

"Treat the gut” is a foundational principle in Naturopathic Medicine, because digestive health is the foundation of your overall health. They say “you are what you eat” - but the truth is you are what you eat and are able to digest, absorb, and use.

So it’s important to ensure proper digestive function for advanced health and to heal and reverse chronic illness. Because an estimated 70-80% of the immune system lives in the digestive tract (to immediately handle any invaders we unknowingly ingest), digestive function is especially important for healing illnesses that stem from chronic inflammatory conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, and autoimmune disease. Immune and digestive health are also important for more common conditions such as allergies, frequent colds, acne, and mood disorders.

In order to digest, absorb, and use the food we eat we have to have a healthy gut and digestive integrity. One of the most common conditions that can cause symptoms not only in the digestive tract but in every area of the body, is intestinal permeability, also known as “leaky gut.”

Intestinal permeability is a condition where the cells of your small intestine (where you absorb the nutrients from your food) lose their integrity due to irritation and inflammation. This causes the cells that are held together by tight junctions to loosen and drift apart. These cells are intended to keep your food inside your small intestine and only absorb micronutrients into the bloodstream once the food is fully broken down. When the integrity of the small intestine lining is broken, this allows larger food particles through the wall of your small intestine and into your bloodstream. Because those larger food particles aren’t supposed to be there, your immune system attacks them as if they were invaders, like a bacteria or virus. But unlike a common cold that resolves in 7 days or less, this invasion-and-reaction cycle takes place in your body every time you eat, causing abnormal and chronic inflammation which can lead to a myriad of symptoms and discomfort.

It may sound a little gross or scary. And it’s true that if this process goes on long enough it can cause or contribute to serious illnesses such as arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, multiple sclerosis, Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, and osteoporosis. However, the body is smart and resilient, and intestinal permeability is completely treatable through proper nutrition, lifestyle, and natural therapies.

In order to heal the gut, lower inflammation naturally (without immune suppressing pharmaceuticals), and improve digestive and immune system function, the first step is to identify the cause. An individualized nutrition plan is crucial, because some foods can cause or exacerbate digestive disturbances. The first step to healing chronic illness through treating the gut is to remove any inflammatory factors. This includes toxic burden, stress, and systematically identifying food sensitivities.

Food sensitivities are very different from food allergies. When someone has a food allergy it's mediated by a cell called an IgE antibody. The IgE antibody triggers an immediate and powerful inflammatory response to the allergen. This is what’s at work when someone with a peanut allergy breaks out in hives or has difficulty breathing.

Food sensitivities are mediated by a completely different type of immune cell called an IgG antibody. The IgG antibody isn’t as intense or immediate as an allergic reaction. The effects are much more subtle, more generalized, and can take up to 72 hours for the symptoms to show up. This is why the symptoms of food sensitivities are much more difficult to diagnose than food allergies and are often misunderstood and undiagnosed by the conventional medical community.

The typical scratch test that you get at the allergist’s office tests for food allergies only, because it’s an IgE test. There are blood panels that can test for food sensitivities by measuring the IgG reaction to specific foods. However, the gold standard for identifying food sensitivities even in the conventional community is elimination and reintroduction.

An elimination diet is a simple challenge to exclude some of the most common inflammatory foods (wheat/gluten, dairy, gluten free grains, corn, soy, legumes, alcohol, and sugar) for 21-30 days and then systematically reintroduce each food 72 hours apart to clearly identify which foods are helping you and which are hurting you.

In my practice, I favor using the elimination and reintroduction diet over IgG food sensitivity testing, because it's the gold standard and it’s both the test and treatment. I find that my clients who do the elimination diet have a significant decrease or complete resolution of symptoms and experience weight loss, improved energy, and mood elevation as happy side effects.

At Thriving Force Natural Medicine we work with clients to identify food sensitivities and develop an ideal nutrition plan through one-on-one medical consultations and group cleanse classes. If you are unable to find a Naturopathic or Functional Medicine Doctor in your area and would like to try an elimination diet on your own, The Whole30 is a great place to start.

Although I favor doing the elimination diet before progressing to food sensitivity testing (if necessary), I recommend talking to your doctor about getting screened for Celiac Disease before going gluten free. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune reaction triggered by gluten consumption and is very different from a gluten sensitivity. You have to be eating gluten regularly to test for Celiac Disease, otherwise you won’t produce antibodies to gluten and the test will not be accurate.

It’s ideal to screen for Celiac Disease before eliminating wheat, because if you reintroduce it and find that it is causing or exacerbating your symptoms (which is a very common scenario) you won’t want to eat it again. And then you won’t know if you have Celiac Disease or a gluten sensitivity, because there’s no correlation between severity of symptoms and Celiac diagnosis. You could have mild symptoms and have Celiac Disease or severe symptoms and have a gluten sensitivity.

It’s important to know if you have Celiac Disease vs a gluten sensitivity, because 1) it’s a hereditary disease in the sense that it occurs in those who are genetically predisposed and a diagnosis in the family is important health information to have and 2) if you have Celiac Disease you will need to be more careful about getting exposed to gluten via cross contamination in your home, at restaurants, and by foods produced in facilities that process wheat and gluten.

Now if you’re going to get screened, it’s important that it’s done right. An IgE scratch test or IgG sensitivity test are not proper or complete screenings for Celiac Disease. In the next article, we’ll take a closer look at the most up to date screening methods for Celiac Disease.