Gluten and wheat products are difficult for many people to digest. Common complaints include abdominal pain, bloating, gas, constipation, indigestion among other non-GI issues such as poor skin, nails, and hair, neurological issues, joint pain, and brain fog to name a few.

Those who need to follow a gluten-free diet are usually put into two categories: Celiac disease and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS). Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease where your body creates antibodies against the protein, gluten, and atrophies the microvilli in your intestines.

NCGS is when you experience similar symptoms of consuming gluten, but do not test positive for Celiac disease. It was originally thought that those with NCGS did not have any intestinal damage, but a study in 2016 by Columbia University Medical Center did find that there was intestinal damage in those with NCGS.

So, it’s no surprise that gluten-free diets are on the rise. A study in 2017 found that 3.1 million Americans now follow a gluten-free diet.

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And while it used to be difficult for someone to navigate a gluten-free diet (as they would be limited in what they were able to purchase at the grocery store or order at restaurants), now there are whole sections at grocery stores dedicated to gluten free with the gluten-free market projected to be valued at 7.59 billion US dollars by 2020.

So, what exactly is gluten…

Gluten is a set of storage proteins found in the endosperm (inside) of the grain seed. The two main proteins are glutenin and gliadian. Gliadin, which is a very tough protein to break down, is responsible for most of the negative health effects. Gluten is digested through specific digestive enzymes, but people with Celiac or NCGS do not have these enzymes or are lacking in quantity.

…and how does glyphosate factor in?

As gluten sensitivity has increased, so has the usage of herbicides on wheat. According to the US Department of Agriculture, as of 2012, 99% of durum wheat, 97% of spring wheat, and 61% of winter wheat has been treated with herbicides. This is an increase from 88% for durum wheat, 91% for spring wheat and 47% for winter wheat since 1998.

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The most common herbicide used is glyphosate, also known as Roundup. Roundup has been shown to have a negative effect on our microbiome. When ingested, glyphosate blocks an enzyme that is responsible for supporting the production of beneficial bacteria. When our digestive tract does not have enough beneficial bacteria, our gut barrier becomes leaky. Intestinal Permeability, or “leaky gut”, enables toxins and other foreign particles to enter our bloodstream and other organs. In turn, damaged intestinal cells decrease our ability to produce digestive enzymes that are critical for digesting and absorbing our foods.

Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet (SAD) is high in sugars, unhealthy fats, and processed wheat which contributes adversely to our gut microbiome. Many processed and convenience foods contain gluten as fillers or for texture. Combine our overconsumption of gluten from processed and convenience foods with the increase in glyphosate-treated produce and we are setting ourselves up for an epidemic of leaky gut. Fortunately, lifestyle and diet changes can play a big role in mitigating the negative effects of gluten.

Below are some simple steps we can take to limit our exposure to gluten and help with digestion:

»Eat Organic – Organic wheat will have lower levels of glyphosate. The more glyphosate we consume, the more toxins we are letting into our body, which contributes to a leaky gut. Organic will have some glyphosate residues due to contamination from conventional wheat, but it will not have direct exposure to glyphosate making it less toxic to our body.

»Eat Lower on the Food Chain – Eating lower on the food chain greatly reduces our consumption of processed foods by focusing on a plant-based diet and choosing whole foods. Doing this improves our digestive health through an increased consumption of micronutrients, phytonutrients, natural pre- and probiotic foods, and antioxidants. Our body responds positively to these foods with improved digestion and increased number of beneficial bacteria.

»Reduce Cross-Contamination – A pilot study by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that 22 samples of gluten-free grains, seeds, and flours contained more gluten than allowed in proposed rules for gluten-free labeling in the US. Those with Celiac disease and some people with a sensitivity to gluten are more likely to have adverse reaction to other grains. If you are still having negative symptoms while avoiding gluten, eating grain free temporarily may help to give your gut a rest.

»Tell the Wait Staff – When going out to eat there is a large chance for cross-contamination of gluten. There may be some dishes that contain gluten, that you wouldn’t normally think of: the coating on the chicken, flour in the soup, flour in the salad dressing, croutons on the salad, etc. It is important to let your wait staff know that you have a sensitivity or an allergy to gluten and to make sure that they do their best to avoid any exposure. Restaurants want to make their customers happy, so don’t feel like a burden advocating for your health!

»Eat with Love and Gratitude – When eating with fear, we stimulate the sympathetic nervous system which shunts blood away from digestion. This can lead to bloating, belly pain, gas, diarrhea, etc. When we experience these symptoms will have fear the next time we eat, and then it will be an endless cycle. When eating with a feeling of calmness and happiness, we stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system which promotes digestion and our ability to secrete digestive enzymes. Remember it’s not only what you eat, but how you eat.