When I give up gluten, will that be forever? Why do I react worse now if I do get ‘glutened’? Will my intolerances get better once the gluten is gone?
I get asked these questions a lot. So, let’s look at some answers.
When I give up gluten, will that be forever?
Clearly, if you are coeliac, you need to be off at least the traditional gluten grains (wheat, rye, barley and probably oats) for life. The damage to the villi is too severe to be messed about with so that’s a no-brainer. If you are truly gluten sensitive, my view is that you are unlikely to be able to go back onto grains ever either. It is thought that gluten damages nerve pathways and that, again, is not something to be taken lightly. Either way, most people feel a return of their old symptoms so find it just isn’t worth it anyway; they’d rather feel healthy.
Why do I react worse now if I do get ‘glutened’?
This is a classic issue. The only real way often to confirm an intolerance to something is to remove it for long enough and then to challenge the body with it and see what happens. This is called ‘elimination and challenge’ and most experts still believe it is the best test for intolerance. Most often, people will get an acute, temporary, unmistakeable resurgence of their previous symptoms. You have moved from a ‘hidden’ intolerance to an ‘unmasked’ one. It’s like your body has woken up almost. So, when you do have gluten again, normally you know about it and don’t want to repeat the experiment! I always think about it that the body has heaved a huge sigh of relief that the gluten or whatever intolerance substance has gone and then, when it comes back again, it screams at you with all alarms blazing to get rid!
Will my other intolerances get better once the gluten is gone?
With regard to sensitivity and other intolerances, the fact of the matter is that many gluten sensitives, coeliac or not, can develop a leaky gut. This then predisposes you to develop immune reactions to any proteins that manage to get through what should be an impermeable (to them) membrane. It is known that gluten ‘upregulates’ or increases the production of a substance called zonulin, which can break down so-called ‘tight junctions’ in the gut wall, thus rendering it ‘leaky’. And that’s why so many gluten sensitive sufferers have other food, environmental and chemical intolerances, as if we haven’t got enough to deal with!
As the body gets better and the leaky gut heals, it can happen that previous intolerances improve, which is great news. BUT, sometimes previously hidden ones can show themselves for a time and other things have to be avoided for a while too whilst the body is healing. The hope is that once the major factor – gluten – has come out of the system, which, as we know, can take some time, the body can start to absorb better and heal again. As nutrient levels increase, the body starts to work more efficiently and the immune system often becomes healthier and less reactive.
So, as you can see, the answer to these questions is somewhat more complex than you might think!
For your Coeliac Awareness Week post, I thought I would ask Dr Peter Osborne from the Gluten Free Society what his answer would be to those questions. Here is what he said:
“Yes, it is normal to react more aggressively once you have been off gluten. And, yes, once gluten is out of your system, other food problems can improve; however, you might have some additional allergy issues that need to be addressed simultaneously. In our clinic, we recommend a full allergy screen to identify other issues.”
“When people go gluten free, they are often more aware of what they react to. It is typically not just gluten items; other allergies show up more when you are gluten free.”
As I said then!
In my humble naturopathic opinion, I think that the removal of a major ‘drainer’ on the body makes the body more vital somehow and you can see the wood for the trees a little clearer. It also makes you more reactive sometimes as the body is less ‘stressed’ if you like by the main problem: gluten, and other problems that were there before but perhaps suppressed or overshadowed by the gluten now show more clearly. Also, an increase in absorption inevitably means an increase in the other proteins you may be reactive to until that leaky gut is healed and the immune system more balanced.
The trick then, as I see it, is:
- to avoid the gluten and grains like the plague,
- to identify any other allergens if you still feel reactive
- to identify and close that leaky gut
- to improve your nutrient status and
- to balance your immunity.
Coming off the gluten or grains is inevitably the best and most important first step. To read more from Dr Osborne, watch his introductory video about gluten and sign up to the blog, forum and video series whilst you’re there.