Was I Wrong About Gluten?

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For years I have been anti-gluten. I removed it from my diet and my skin quality improved and I got leaner effortlessly. But lately I’ve seen a growing backlash against the gluten backlash. Instead of dismissing the new wave of gluten defenders, I thought I’d look at gluten with fresh eyes as well as reconciling my own personal experience.

Remembering 2008

2008 was the year I started making many health changes. After many years of eating a pesco-vegetarian diet composed of multiple meals throughout the day, I slowly began eating meat. I eased into experimenting with Intermittent Fasting and cold temperature exposure. No longer fat phobic, my overall carbohydrate consumption dropped. I stopped buying bread and only consumed grains away from home.

With all these factors in play, I started leaning out. I also decided to visit a dermatologist to address my rosacea. She gave me creams and massive amounts of antibiotics. In the post Be Your Own Dermatologist, I go into how I got off the meds and determined it was wheat that caused my skin flare ups.

I don’t want to fall for attribution bias and state that all the wonderful health improvements I made in 2008-2009 were from removing grains. It could have been from following a more nutrient dense diet, lower carbs, IF, cold exposure or cooking more of my own meals. It was probably some combination. What I do recall is that my experience with wheat got worse after my visits to the skin doctor. Worse than before I made any dietary changes.

By the end of 2009, I had enough experiences to recognize that when exposed to wheat I would get a headache that could last 12 to 24 hours. Sometimes I would get a stomach ache. So on January 8, 2010, I decided I’d have my last piece of bread. The date wasn’t accidental. It was Elvis’s birthday, so of course I had a fried peanut butter and banana sandwich. I haven’t touched bread since.

Since giving up the wheat, I have had accidental exposure a few times. The response was usually the same headache and/or stomach ache. In the past year though, I’ve noticed that small amounts of soy sauce or other food items with trace wheat don’t bother me. This got me thinking.

Was it Gut Flora?

Why was I handling gluten exposure much better in 2013 than I did from 2010-2012? Was my body more resilient? If so, what was going on? Last month Chris Kresser did a podcast on What Are the Hidden Costs of Modern Hygiene? that helped me connect the pieces.

…it’s possible that if we still had the Paleolithic microbiome intact, we could tolerate grains and all of these compounds with no problem. And perhaps that explains why some people are able to tolerate those foods with apparently no problems. But given that the microbiome has changed so significantly because of things like sanitation and hygiene and also increased use of antibiotics and decline in the consumption of fermented foods and fermentable substrates that lead to a better gut microbiome…

In 2008, I began taking a lot of antibiotics to deal with rosacea. Is it possible that my gut flora was in a far worse state to digest gluten because of the meds? And starting in early 2010 I began making kimchi and sauerkraut, both fermented foods to support gut flora. However, I didn’t get into dairy kefir on a regular basis until December 2012. Since that time, I haven’t had a single incident where trace exposure has triggered ill effects.

kimchi

Kimchi

Bring on the Bread?

I needed to do a test to support the theory that my gut flora was destroyed by antibiotics in 2008 and healed via fermented foods from 2010 to present. So last Saturday, I went to a microbrewery and drank a 4 oz ale. Beer makes more sense than bread, since beer is fermented and tastes better. 🙂 This was the first beer I had since 2010. I had no issues. No headache, no stomach ache. I slept fine. Granted this is only one point of data, but a very encouraging one.

I’ve read several accounts of individuals who have reversed their gluten insensitivity, so this idea isn’t new. Although it is doubtful this will help Celiacs, being less sensitive to wheat is a step towards greater resilience.

This post is getting long, so I’ll explain in Part 2 why I do not have any plans to resume eating bread and what the new wave of gluten defenders have gotten wrong.

17 thoughts on “Was I Wrong About Gluten?

  1. EF

    To me gluten is the least offensive of the big three (Veg oils, refined sugar, and gluten) when it comes to obesity. The obesity epidemic really did not start until the 70’s. Europeans and Americans were eating gluten long before that without being extremely obese. The rise in obesity seems to rise with the presence of large portions of veg oil in the diet. I think those poly fats are the biggest factors.

  2. Roberta

    I’m with you. I’m virtually gluten free, but occasionally a beer sounds really really good. (I don’t drink much any more, but if I want alcohol it is always a beer – which I didn’t really like before (hmm). And sometimes it’s fine and sometimes it upsets my stomach. I think it’s probably that me stomach/gut flora is healthier, which allows me to indulge occasionally. For me at least, if I started eating a lot of wheat or gluten, I’m sure my old issues would come back.

  3. @EF – We agree on PUFA. I’m still neutral on sugar. Gluten is more complicated, which I’ll get into more in Part 2.

    @Roberta – Glad to hear your gut flora is healthier and you can enjoy a beer now.

  4. kimberly

    This makes sense to me. My issues with gluten began after taking Accutane (an acne therapy that has since been removed from the market in response to lawsuits over IBS claims).

    Which begs the question: which came first, the acne or the gut imbalance? I’ve seen some benefit from probiotic supplements, enough to motivate me to eat more fermented foods.

    Looking forward to part 2.

  5. rob

    I had problems with IBS for years before giving up the grains so to me it’s not optional. Every year or so I give pasta and pizza another try and it’s always the same damned thing.

    I can take a beer or two or a small amount of wheat but if I make it a regular part of my diet look out because I will crap on your lawn if need be.

  6. Richard

    Avoiding gluten is one of the few things I’ve kept from my paleo days (along with avoiding PUFAs, some forms of soy, and processed food in general). However, that’s just because it causes obvious digestion problems for me. Nothing subtle about it. I tend to doubt that everyone should avoid gluten, though. The gluten-free trend is certainly convenient for me, but I’m pretty sure it is mostly a fad.

    My digestive and endocrine health improved dramatically when I ditched paleo and low-carb. I do much better on a whole food, high carb, high fiber, moderately low fat, plant-based diet. Avoiding beans? Butter in coffee? What the hell was I thinking? I actually am less sensitive to gluten than I used to be, and my FODMAP sensitivity is completely gone. This may just be because irritants move through faster (go fiber!), but I suspect that my gut flora is also healthier.

    BTW, 23andMe did show me as having the gene associated with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. I’ll probably continue to test it occasionally, but I’m not hopeful. I don’t really miss bread anymore, but I do miss beer. C’est la vie.

  7. Glenn Whitney

    That all makes sense. I’ve had similar experiences with gluten. With beer, I do notice minor skin irritations, it makes me pee a lot in the middle of the night and it seems to be quite fattening for me…

  8. Glenn Whitney

    Also – would be interesting to discuss the economics of gluten-free. The pizza places and Ethiopian restaurant are charging about 50% more for the gluten-free versions…

  9. Erica

    I’m conflicted on gluten as well. I never had any digestion problems with it, but after giving it up for paleo I became sensitive to it. It causes some zits/acne for me now and I’ve noticed occasional swelling in a lymph node by my left ear after I eat it for awhile. If it’s sporadic like 1-2 x’s a month then it doesn’t seem to have much affect besides breakouts. Only other thing I’ve noticed is stronger nails when not eating grains.
    I also had 23andMe done and it says I should be fine with gluten and dairy. So, I’m just confused now. I stay away for the most part for now, but if I really want a cookie or something I’ll eat it.

  10. Basil Gravanis

    MAS,

    I, sadly, don’t have any pertinent journal citations handy to lob your way, but I did come across the idea in the last year or so that certain ‘flavors’ of gluten-sensitivity may in fact be _quite_ dose-dependent (perhaps this ties in to the gut-flora interaction) and that it may not require total, hyper-vigilant avoidance for some. This idea, coupled with the knowledge that many varieties of beer are actually far lower in gluten than you might think (Though not approaching true ‘gluten-free’ beer levels, we’re still talking _parts per million_ here regardless…) could explain your beer experience. As a beer (and coffee!) aficionado , I took a chance with this information and found that I’m able to consume beer a few times a week, in moderation, with no tell-tale acne eruptions, gut (gas) issues, or the feeling of malaise that I associate with a honest-to-goodness gluten exposure. I daresay, it could also be that certain brewing methods & recipes produce beers which have strikingly different characters in regards to gluten content, structure, diversity, etc.
    Cheers, Basil

  11. @Basil – I saw a study showing lagers are quite low in gluten and ales had a wide range of difference. Wheat beers being higher than pale ales.

  12. I’ve seen a lot, in various sources, on how food sensitivities decrease over time on a healthier diet, so this doesn’t surprise me, though I hadn’t thought of the effect of antibiotics. My own sensitivity is to carbohydrates in general. Antibiotics are not an issue since I can’t remember the last time I took any, plus I still have my appendix, which helps replenish gut biota, so obviously my situation is different from yours. I want to do the 23andme test now to see what they say about me and gluten.

  13. It’s worth questioning, I think, whether the culprit in wheat sensitivity for non-celiac individuals is in fact gluten or any of the other potentially irritating factors in wheat- Wheat Germ Agglutinin being one candidate, and wheat fructans (FODMAPS) being another. A recent trial put self-assessed gluten-sensitives on a wheat-free diet that was low in FODMAPS overall, which as expected resulted in improvements. When pure wheat gluten (without WGA or fructans from whole wheat) was introduced into the diet of the experimental group, no significant changes in symptoms appeared as compared to the control group.

    I’ve come to believe my own issues, likely also sparked by an incident with antibiotics, are more related to FODMAPS associated with the wheat bran as well as the bran of certain other grains. Oats actually set it off the worst, followed by whole-wheat products. White bread no problem, beer no problem, most pastas no problem. If anything, as dense energy sources those foods make my metabolism pretty happy.

  14. @Anemone – I didn’t recall seeing anything about Gluten on the 23andMe test, so I went back and looked for it. All I see is a likely of Celiac of 0.11 out of 100, which is average. I think gluten issues are more likely to be environmental, for the gut flora issues mentioned in the post above.

  15. I’m really enjoying your blog. It’s very thoughtful, with a nice, scientific approach to the problems you’ve faced with food. I like that you manage quite well to prevent emotion from undermining the arguments you pose. I try to do the same.

    I am not an anti-gluten proselytizer, though I’ve been gluten-free since 2006. My genetic test was negative for Celiac Disease and my endoscopies have always been optimal. Yet, I have an undeniable reaction to foods containing wheat ingredients … with one notable exception:

    I went to a burger place in New York City that has gluten-free options and I asked for them, including the tapioca rice bun. Instead, they gave me a brioche bun and, since it was takeout, I didn’t look at my order until I got to my destination. In fact, I didn’t even take note of the bun until I was halfway through my burger (I was fairly preoccupied, in a rush, famished and, frankly, oblivious). At that moment, I had this dreadful epiphany that I’d been eating a bun made with wheat flour and I was surely in for a whole world of hurt … yet nothing along the lines of what usually happens (severe intestinal distress) happened (I saved what I didn’t eat and went back to have them confirm it was, in fact, the brioche. It was.). The consequence: I got a little bloated. That’s it.

    All of this wordiness is just to say that I, like you, seem to have moments where I can tolerate gluten. But there have been others where I absolutely cannot stand even one iota of it.

    I haven’t been brave enough to drink conventional beer. Nor to go have a slice of pizza, nor try another brioche bun. I have had so many unpleasant cases where I’d been given glutenous food and had horrible physical reactions that I am incredibly shy to try and reenact this miracle episode wherein I knowingly ate gluten and escaped unscathed. But I have been immensely curious, as to why.

    I never had an issue with gluten until I was in my teens and, then, it was only intermittent. In my 20s, it became intolerable and, upon making the switch to a gluten-free diet, all of my distress — the result of food — ended.

    The entire situation (the sensitivity, etc.) is a mystery to me but I know that I feel better without consuming gluten, and that’s enough … except that I am much leaner than I care to be (I’m naturally very lean to begin with and I’m about 7 lbs lighter than I was, which does not please me). I eat massive quantities of food and I cannot replace the weight that I lost. My diet is high carb, high fat, high protein and my calories usually exceed 3,000/day, yet I remain — at 5’10” — a mere 150 lbs.

    I wonder what would be the result of increasing my consumption of fermented foods. I’m going to give that a try. Maybe my gut flora are depleted and not making the most of what I take in.

    Again, thanks very much for this blog; it’s wonderful. I enjoy the clean design and typesetting, too.

  16. @Steve – Thanks for sharing you story. I have found that 2-3 ounces of beer is OK with me. My **guess** is that fermentation makes gluten more digestible. Like you I still don’t ever see myself reaching for a slice of regular pizza.

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