A what field at sunset

What is Gluten?


In my How to Manage Anxiety – Part 1 post, we touched on gluten and why it may not be beneficial in relation to anxiety. In that post, I also mentioned that this one perhaps deserves a further blog post. So in this post, we will cover what gluten is, and why it might be harmful to our bodies. Gluten (and gluten-free) are buzzwords that are thrown around often in today’s society. However, a lot of people do not actually know what it means and how it works in the body. So I am here to share with you the FACTS. Also, I am supplementing this post with amazing gluten-free recipe ideas to provide you some inspiration 😉.

Plum Crumble in a high rim glass with a spoon and a dollop of vanilla ice cream
Plum Crumble

What is Gluten?

Let us start with the obvious one: What is gluten? Gluten is a form of mainly two proteins (glutenin and gliadin), that are most commonly found in wheat but also exist in other grains such as rye, spelt, barley, einkorn, and Kamut. In very simple terms, gluten is what helps bind the flour together when mixed with water. This creates a sticky (glutenous) texture that then allows, for example, bread to rise.

Peach Galette shot from above with one piece cut out
Peach Galette

Why Might Gluten Not Be Healthy for Us? 

The immune system in our gut mistakes the gliadin part of gluten for a harmful substance and starts to attack it by producing antibodies. Unfortunately, these antibodies then also start to attack the enzyme that broke down the gluten in the first place. This enzyme forms and holds together the microvilli of your gut. Basically, the part that allows your body to absorb all the nutrients from the gut. Whilst attacking, we develop microtears in our intestines. This can then lead to the gut leaking into the rest of our body. Everyone develops these microtears in the intestine from gluten. Some people are able to heal/close them up a lot quicker than others though.

Very Coconutty and Lime Naked Cake on a glass cake stand shot from above with one piece taken out
Very Coconutty and Lime Naked Cake

What Can Be The Effects of Gluten-Sensitivity on The Body? 

You do not have to be celiac (= a very severe form of gluten intolerance) in order to feel the effects of gluten. With microtears in your gut, your body will be less able to absorb nutrients. It also makes it possible for undigested food particles, toxins, microbes, and said antibodies to travel via the bloodstream to other parts of the body. Whilst traveling they may even attack other proteins that look similar along the way.

We know that there is a very strong connection between our brain and the gut. These two organs are connected through our nervous system and chemicals called neurotransmitters. So, you may not notice that your gut is “hurting”. BUT you may be experiencing headaches, brain fog, or extreme fatigue, as well as potentially anxiety and depression… 

Lemon Blueberry Polenta Bread on a colorful plate with two pieces cut off
Lemon Blueberry Polenta Bread

Why Has Gluten and Gluten-Free Become Such a “Buzzword” Nowadays? 

Unfortunately, celiac disease cases are doubling roughly every fifteen years, so more people need to live gluten-free than ever before. There are a lot of factors that can influence a gluten-sensitivity, but stress is definitely one of them (and also contributes to a leaky gut).  Genetics is another factor, as well as the number of chemicals that we nowadays have on our food, and in our environment. As a society, we also tend to be eating a lot more gluten, because it is very much a “cheap” ingredient in convenience foods. When you are starting to eliminate gluten, there is a chance that you may need to eliminate other foods that the antibodies are also seeing as a harmful protein and are attacking as part of your diet (this is called cross-reactivity).

Chocolate banana pancakes with a chocolate and hazelnut sauce on a plate with raspberries
Chocolate Banana Pancakes

What About Sprouting Gluten or Sourdough Bread? 

Sprouting does not break down the proteins in gluten, so you will still have gluten in that sprout. I also want to mention that sprouted food does increase the glycemic load of food. So it should be consumed with care by people who are sensitive to blood sugar increases and/or diabetes. Note: I do not want to give sprouting a bad rep. In general, sprouting (e.g. beans, etc.) is actually really healthy and can be super fun!

Strawberry Banana Muffins on a white background
Strawberry Banana Muffins

Sourdough bread means that some of the flour has been fermented. Nowadays, most bakeries do this process in a machine and very much in a short amount of time. So you may not be receiving the same benefits from the fermentation process any longer. Traditionally, this fermentation process took about 4 – 5 days. Fermentation definitely helps your body to digest gluten better. But it does not eliminate it, which means the gluten sensitivity factor is still valid.

Do I Have to Eat Gluten-free?

As with all things health-related you have to find a solution that works for you and you alone. Our microbiome, which resides largely in the gut, only matches with other people by roughly 25%. 25%! That means that if you and a person living in the same household are eating the same thing, you will likely digest said same thing very differently. If you know you are already struggling with your digestive tract, or it needs extra care at the moment because you have been ill (remember that our immune system also largely resides in the gut), you may want to consider going gluten-free. The same goes for any of the above-mentioned health challenges that you could be experiencing (e.g. fatigue, brain fog, anxiety, etc.).

Chocolate Hazelnut Brownie Bites on a wooden surface with milk in the background
Chocolate Hazelnut Brownie Bites

If you are truly gluten-sensitive and notice or get it diagnosed, please note that you cannot be gluten-free “part-time”. You will continue to see the health challenges until you have fully eliminated gluten for good. BUT – remember all the vibrance of food that you can still enjoy on a gluten-free diet and not what you may be missing out on (like all the recipes on Life & Lemons 🤗)

Coconut chocolate bites on a blue plate with white background
Coconut Chocolate Bites

What Can I Eat On a Gluten-free Diet?

There are so many gluten-free grains and flours! I am so glad (for all of us) that there are now amazing recipes out there that do not make you feel like you are missing a thing. Oats, for example, are naturally gluten-free. However, if you are celiac or gluten-sensitive, definitely buy certified gluten-free. This is because oats are often-times processed in wheat factories and may be cross-contaminated with gluten. There is buckwheat (I know, the name is confusing – but I promise it is gluten-free), rice, quinoa, millet, amaranth, and corn. Cassava flour also lends itself well to, e.g. making tortillas or rolls. All legumes are gluten-free and often-times can be turned into flour (e.g. chickpea flour). Not to forget nuts and seeds are also totally gluten-free (and again can be an easy flour once ground). 

Gluten-free Carrot Cake with a Vegan Buttercream Frosting with one piece being taken out with a knife photographed up close
Gluten-free Carrot Cake with a Vegan Buttercream Frosting

Where Do I Go From Here?

Well, at the very least, if next time someone tells you they are gluten-free and do not know what it actually means, you can educate them 😉. Jokes aside though, I hope this post has provided you with the facts about gluten. What it does in our bodies and why it might be harmful to some people. If you are struggling with an auto-immune disease, or an illness, eliminating gluten is usually the first step to feeling better 🙏🏻. I hope this post has provided you with some insight into making an informed decisions for your own health 💕.

The beautiful cover picture is by Marigna Roth on Unsplash.

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