Do You Really Have To Cut Out Gluten For Optimal Health?

Photo: Ellie Baygulov

My friend Patty joined a local gym to support a friend, and as part of their nutrition program she eliminated all processed carbs, most of which contain gluten. To her surprise, she lost 10 pounds almost instantly, her concentration improved, she had more energy, and most importantly, her chronic stomachache went away. To my dismay as a doctor, she had never complained to me about the stomachache. She told me that she had experienced bloating and discomfort with eating for so many years that it had become totally normal to her. But when it went away, she couldn't stop telling people about how it had transformed her life!

Interesting, all of her children also have "bad stomachs," as they like to call it. Her daughter was convinced she had celiac disease, but the test was negative, so they continued to encourage her to eat it. Her son had growth delay and also suffered from chronic stomach issues. I recommended that she consider a gluten-elimination trial for them as well, to see if it improved their digestive suffering.

Gluten-free and processed carbs.

Whenever I suggest eliminating gluten, I'm always asked the question: So do all people need to be gluten-free? The answer is no. But there is a very large portion of people who benefit from removing gluten and all processed carbs from their daily eating habits.

So many people tell me that they've had a negative celiac test and therefore they don't need to eliminate these gluten-containing food groups. So let's look at the science: There are two genes associated with celiac disease (called DQ2 or DQ8), and if you don't have them, you can never get celiac disease. About 40 to 55 percent of individuals in the United States have one, or both, of these genes. And even a person without either gene—and with a negative celiac test—can still be sensitive to gluten and processed carbs.

Photo: Gillian Vann

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The spectrum of gluten sensitivity.

The truth is that celiac disease is not an "on/off" event. It's the end result of a spectrum of discomfort and suffering that can cross over into autoimmune disease territory at any time. In other words, it's diagnosed when your antibodies cross a certain level in the lab. However, most individuals don't go from perfect to celiac all that quickly. What tends to happen is that they begin to experience symptoms like my friend Patty did. These symptoms often persist for months—or even years. Patty told me that she visited the doctor "countless" times for herself and her children, only to be told nothing was wrong. But there was something wrong; it just hadn't gotten so bad that it showed up as an autoimmune disease!

Why listening to your body is the most important thing.

The take-home message? Listen to your body and never ignore the subtle or not-so-subtle signs it's sending you. Do you feel amazing after eating and free of chronic health complaints? Then you don't need to obsess over gluten. Are you fatigued, headachy, and suffering from weight-loss resistance? You might want to try eliminating it—which is the only way to really know if it's a problem for you. Food is one of the most major determinants in your health. Is it always gluten? No. But it's often the culprit, and found in almost all prepackaged foods!

I know this can seem daunting, so don't go it alone! A functional medicine provider can support you in your gluten journey by doing a full work-up and evaluation. You may find that the problems you never knew you had go away!

Here's why one woman with celiac disease refuses to eat "gluten-free."

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