Gluten, tight junctions and the redundancy of canaries

I have opted for a tongue-in-cheek/ambiguous title to this piece as I tend to find humour and confusion the main way I like to introduce something which I know might be seen as slightly, if not a lot, controversial in most people’s eyes. Make a joke about something and then it’s easier to pretend that the subject is not that important to you after all. Conversely, I have been accused by people who know me well that it’s not necessarily a brilliant idea to laugh while saying something serious because it’s like I’m not taking it seriously either and so how can anyone else be expected to really believe in or listen to what I have to say either? So here I am with this conundrum. A topic most people don’t believe in or think is a big deal: gluten.

Well, I have been putting off writing this post for absolutely ages because it is a subject that I have become so passionate about over the past two years (gluten, that is, and not those little yellow birds used in the past to warn miners of the danger from carbon monoxide poisoning, of which I will refer back to eventually) that sometimes I have felt completely overwhelmed about where to start.  All along  I have wanted to get my point across but at the same time I have been frightened that I will only serve to alienate the very people with whom I want to reach out. There have indeed been many times over the past couple of years since my own ‘enlightenment’ where I have talked  to people on this subject and if I am completely honest, I have mostly come across as a bit of nutter (a bit…well, maybe a lot). I have ‘lectured’ everyone from family members, friends, (close and distant) and even people whom I have only just met on the street with rants that have lasted five minutes and have even gone on for more than twenty minutes.

I remember an episode last summer when my husband, my husband’s brother and I had gone for a lovely walk on the South Downs, close to my house, and I had scarcely seemed to take a breath between monologues which not only must have bored my brother-in-law sh*tless but simultaneously bewildered him with my zealotry for something he had barely heard of before our stroll. Admittedly I had thrown in the horrors of GMO’s as well as all the other sordid details of the processed food industry that I could think of and yet why had I gone on so much? Why couldn’t I have just shut up and just enjoyed a lovely walk on a summer’s day? And what the hell was I trying to prove by this rant?

I know this isn’t really the answer but it’s because I think, that most people don’t really have a clue about gluten and perhaps more pertinently, most people don’t give a sh*t either. This in turn just increases my exasperation levels so instead of just giving up, I turn up the volume and go in full blast for the final showdown. I am very intense and I sometimes just don’t know when to shut the f*ck up!

And I still haven’t even started to talk about why gluten is so ‘evil’ a substance. What is this stuff after all?

Gluten: as I have come to understand it

Gluten itself is composed of elastic proteins (glutenin and gliadin)  found in wheat, rye and barley and gives bread products their stretchiness and allows cakes to rise. It is not something separate from these grains but part of them – and ironically something which is completely indigestible by human beings. Yes, the starch component of these grains provides energy when the carbohydrate is broken down through the process of digestion and converted to blood glucose.  The starch found in these every day grains can stave off famines. They are highly useful in emergencies but sadly, are most definitely NOT what people should be consuming in vast quantities every day at virtually every meal as is so often the case in the West (more on this in a moment).

The fibrous parts of these glutenous grains, on the other hand,  have long been accredited with aiding digestion: eg bran (widely known to be indigestible but providing bulk to the stool that is finally passed when we go for a ‘number 2’) but I am not going to go into the pro’s and con’s of this argument here (I don’t eat products containing this kind of fibre anymore so I am personally really not that interested in what it might or might not do in this respect. Suffice to say I have no problems with my digestive tract as far as I am aware and feel fairly confident that it’s apparent health has now got a lot to do with my diet being completely wheat, rye and barley-free.   Gluten itself provides nothing useful to the body itself per se  and  its remnants one would hope are removed by the body through egestion – but unfortunately this may not be the case…

It is probably no coincidence that the Latin word for glue is ‘gluten’ .  Gluten, after all, is a substance whose glue-like consistency provides no nutritional value to the body and is a non-food substance in reality.  The definition of food after all is something which provides benefits to the body through growth,repair and maintenance of the healthy functioning of the immune system and because gluten is totally indigestible to human beings it cannot really be considered ‘food’, can it? Yes, you heard me – human beings have never ever been able to digest gluten themselves and it is only because certain adventitious bacteria  take up residence in the colon due to the presence of gluten that it is digested at all.

Have you ever felt bloated or experienced gassy discomfort following a particularly heavy bread-based fest?

At this point it might be useful to have an aside comment. Have you ever felt bloated or experienced gassy discomfort following a particularly heavy meal of bread products such as pasta or pizza? That ‘ll be the effects of these foreign bacteria colonising the gut and off-gassing while they partially break down the gluten for you. This is not only uncomfortable but can actually set off a chain of other events in the gut, disrupting and displacing  our normal friendly gut-flora (or healthy microbiome in other words) which can lead to a host of other problems (dybiosis) even if we aren’t technically diseased with gluten-intolerance itself.

So to recap, eating food products containing gluten means that foreign microbes invade the gut to feast off it (partially digesting it for you)  while farting their arses off doing so but like having any wild party with unwanted guests there is invariably a lot of mess to clean up afterwards with few volunteers really wanting to do it ie there’s lots of undigested goo just hanging around in the gut, potentially rotting there and causing no end of disturbances that can potentially lead to long term disease.

Anecdotally I remember once having a conversation with a renowned authority on colonic irrigation, Anne Blouet, founder of the European School of Colon Hydrotherapy who told me that it’s common to find pounds of this gluey substance stuck inside the colon. Forget what you think you knew from your biology class at school that all food is broken down by the time it gets to the colon. Yes, maybe this is true when the substance you are talking about is really ‘food’ but gluten itself isn’t so much a food as a highly inflammatory substance found inextricably linked to our favourite foods because it has a useful stretchy component to it. Shame that!

It can apparently take up to five days for normal food to pass all the way through the body from mouth to anus but we all have stories to tell of individuals being constipated and some even thinking it normal that once a week is often enough.  So what is the norm? Well apparently in an ideal world with a healthy gut, you should poo each time you have a meal! Sounds like my black labrador but human beings? Do they really defaecate that often? I’ll tell you if you tell me…Ok, it’s twice a day with me. How about you?

So how does this all fit in with gluten and why is it so bad, it’s indigestible by humans and that bloated feeling is due to bacteria colonising your gut, taking advantage of the free food but is it really THAT bad for you? We poo it all out in the end even those who are severely constipated, don’t we, so where’s the problem?

The Microbiome

The what? I mentioned bad bacteria a moment ago – the kind that are like unwanted party guests? Yes, we all know about bacteria, poo etc. It’s the stuff people tell us about from the time we were small – ‘germs’ wash your hands after you’ve been to the loo, gippy tummy and diarrhoea, Noro virus and dysentery. Unfortunately there are a lot of bacteria and other microorganisms in our gut which are actually beneficial (remember the adverts on tv about probiotic yogurts etc? Some doctors might even be prescribing less antibiotics too now?)

This microbiome, basically equivalent to a body organ, located in the colon and comprises 3-4 lbs of bacterial material has co evolved with us and not only helps us digest our food, incredibly it also shares its genetic material with us too. I’m not going to go into all this here but know that it is like having another organ in our body of equal importance to the heart, lungs and liver (for examples of essential organs)!

Yes, we have good gut bacteria which scientists now know do far more for our bodies than anyone ever imagined ten years ago and certainly never dreamed of after Louis Pasteur came along about 150 years ago with his Germ Theory which started the whole fear-mongering of bacteria in medicine being the ‘enemy’ approximately 150 years ago. Old lessons are hard to unlearn and currently in modern medicine there is a lot of resistance to this new belief system, this shift in consciousness, this understanding that maybe all ‘germs’ are not as bad as they’ve been been cracked up to be in the past one hundred years or so.

And again, I reiterate the question: what has this got to do with gluten?

And this is only the half of it… I will refer you to a seminal paper that I often tell everyone to read (although it is quite geeky and not that easy to take in first time but the information within it is critical to an understanding of what happens once it has arrived in the gut, the duodenum to be precise. ‘Leaky Gut and Autoimmune Diseases’ by Alessio Fasano from  Clinical Reviews in Allergy and Immunology (2011). This seminal paper explains the root reason why the topic of leaky gut and gluten have become such buzz words in even the media over the past couple of years or so. Sure enough the actual details have not yet trickled down to make that much of an impact (it’s complicated stuff after all and seriously, when I was going on about my passion earlier, it doesn’t take long before the person I’m talking to has completely glazed over and is wondering how to escape from my clutches.) It is hard to get the gist across without alienating people but let’s not delay any longer and just hit you with the facts. Be prepared – it’s not a pretty picture!

The nitty gritty of what gluten does in your gut

Because Fasano’s paper is difficult to digest (but not as difficult as gluten!) particularly in one reading I will endeavour to cover the gist of it here. Be warned – you may not think of pizza in quite the same way ever again…

Do you remember your biology lessons at school where you are studying the digestive tract and you get to the small intestine and how it’s where most of digestion takes place? Do you also remember how the lining of the intestine is covered with long tentacle like projections called villi which themselves are also covered with microscopic tentacles (called microvilli) which all serve to greatly increase the surface area of digested food to take place? In the first part of the small intestine is the duodenum where most of digestion really does take place as digestive enzymes from the pancreas and bile from the liver are emptied into it to continue to break down the starches started in the mouth from salivary amylase and proteins breakdown from pepsinogen and trypsinogen started in the stomach? All sounding vaguely familiar? (I am really having to dredge up the memories myself so forgive me if the details aren’t quite perfect). Anyway, the ‘chyme’ (the partially digested food that arrives into the duodenum from the stomach) is now having further enzymes and bile from the body added to it and digestion can proceed. Now remember the microbiome is here too – all those friendly bacteria – the newest of our body’s discovered ‘organs’ and also something else is very important here too – 85% of the immune system is located here in the gut walls.

Eh? What? The immune system? Isn’t that something to do with your body’s defence system? Yep! And most of it is here in the ‘lowly’ gut!

Are you starting to get the impression just how important your gut is to your body’s overall health and well-being? I hope you are because maybe you will start to get just how important it is to respect it, take the old saying of ‘treat your body like a temple’ seriously and remember also what Hippocrates (the father of modern medicine to which medical doctors still swear an oath to till this day) said over two millennia ago: ‘  ‘All disease begins in the gut’.

I know what you’re thinking (No? Well, why not?) if Hippocrates really did come up with this conclusion over two thousand years ago (and ironically modern doctors don’t seem to know this from the number of bacteria destroying medicines they routinely prescribe their patients for every minor little ailment) why has it taken us so long to fully understand what is going wrong now?
Probably because in the past fifty years we have reached a point where our bodies have started to seriously rebel with the sheer volumes of poisons we are exposing our selves to now daily. Think about it for a moment – most of our immune system – our first line of defence to infection is located in the gut – the place where we absorb food and nutrients to keep our bodies healthy – and the source of the raw materials for the repair  and growth of new cells and the energy to break down, remove and replace old and diseased cells…

Yes, if we put rubbish in our gut, the source of our immune system and where health begins, we are putting ourselves at risk, are we not? Hmmm…yes.

Gluten….yes, where this comes in…. remember gliadin and wait for it a new sounding word: zonulin? Well, gliadin acts as a stimulant for the production of zonulin and zonulin has this effect of opening something known as ‘tight junctions’ in the gut.

Being indigestible, gluten is inflammatory. Remember these tight junctions are meant to stay shut. Being inflammatory it causes these junctions to stay open in the presence of gluten and make the gut wall look like Swiss cheese.

‘Tight junctions’ – haven’t heard of those before? And what, do you imagine, are they supposed to be like? Tightly shut maybe? Yep! But hey, what happens when gliadin comes along and stimulates the production of Zonulin…Uh -oh – the tight junctions open and hey presto, there are suddenly loads of little holes in the gut where digested and partially indigested food and other substances which might also be in your gut that shouldn’t be there either that are now able to pass directly into the blood stream! Gluten will be one of these undigested substances along with bacteria, viruses, fungi and other toxins that the immune system hasn’t necessarily had the opportunity to deal with properly.

Let’s imagine a daily meal of an ordinary person who lives on a typical Western carbohydrate based diet, a diet that most medical practitioners still consider ‘healthy’.

Toast and/or cereal for breakfast (containing gluten from wheat and probably barley and rye too) and a glass of freshly squeezed juice or even a freshly prepared smoothie with a handful of organic kale

Mid morning – another snack of a croissant or slice of cake (it’s a work colleagues birthday after all)

Lunchtime: a baguette – ok it might be filled with loads of salad or it might even just be a salad but it contains croutons and the shop-bought salad dressing may also contain gluten too. Don’t forget the fruit salad ‘freshly prepared’ from the High Street’s favourite clothing and food hall purveyor.

Mid afternoon: a slice of toast to stave off hunger till dinner time. Hey! It’s organic wholemeal so it’s healthy – full of fibre (yep, but it’s full of gluten too) and it’s got real butter on it as well!

Dinner: Pasta putanesca – vegetarian – with yet another healthy colourful salad but full of gluten nonetheless.

So what does the gluten – or specifically the gliadin in the gluten do?

Well, zonulin has been stimulated into opening those tight junctions. They are tight for a reason: undigested food or the contents of the intestine is not meant to get into the bloodstream directly – proper digestion with enzymes is meant to ensure that only nutrients and vitamins are meant to be absorbed through the microscopic villi and waste (the stuff you aren’t meant to eat,digest,consume, etc goes through into the colon and passes out via the anus).

Seriously, do I have to spell this out any more clearly? Sh*t does not want to be in your bloodstream and yet EVERYTIME ANYONE EATS GLUTEN THIS HAPPENS TO EVERYBODY! And note the list of foods consumed throughout the day above – eaten less than four hours apart – well, every time gluten stimulates the production of zonulin and those tight junctions open, guess what they stay open for FOUR HOURS at a time. Imagine, the contents of your digestive tract seeping into your blood stream for possibly more than twelve hours a day. Say your first mouthful of gluten is 7:30 a.m and your last meal finishes at 7:30pm (and remember the zonulin keeps those TJ’s open for up to four hours… Well, that’s  approximately 16 hours of sewage pumping into a body that is trying to be a temple with all that other healthy eating that’s going on….

Being indigestible this elastic protein is inflammatory. It is not natural to the environment of the gut with its natural residents of the microbiome that have lived in harmony with our bodies for millennia and have co evolved with us like our original food sources. We were still hunter-gatherers ten thousand years ago after all and yet our general understanding of evolution should allow us to understand that major changes in our food supply (as it has changed in the past fifty years or so)  will have had a negative impact not only on our body’s ability adapt to foreign food stuffs but also our microbiome’s ability to handle substances that it just hasn’t had the time to evolve to digest or tolerate these new food stuffs either.

Remember that the immune system plays a large role in the gut wall lining?   In one sense isn’t it logical to appreciate that if we start changing things too rapidly with our diet and our lifestyle, it’s hardly unsurprising that there have been so many negative repercussions to world health statistics in the past fifty years or so? Just look at the number of people globally who are currently dying from chronic diseases, estimated to account for 70% of worldwide deaths annually!  Yes, we have been eating gluten containing foodstuffs for about ten thousand years (since human beings as a race generally started farming grains) but amount of time is nothing in evolutionary terms and on top of it all, we have done so much more to put a big strain on our immune systems (remember where most of this is located in our bodies?) in the past fifty years with increased explosure to a plethora of other substances now prevalent in our modern world that just weren’t there fifty years ago.

So, we have a newly discovered ‘organ’ (the Microbiome) in our bodies that we didn’t even know we had until recently, which like all the organs of our body that evolved with us over the past countless eons, now  the 21st century we are eating some of the most alien ‘foods’ and exposing our bodies to some foreign chemicals that just weren’t around when we evolved.

Let’s have a look at some of these other substances inflammatory to our immune system (some of which weren’t even around even fifty years ago).

Processed foods, (containing highly refined sugars and other bleached carbohydrates like white flour) lipopolysaccharides and other unhealthy manufactured polyunsaturated fats and carbohydrates, PCB’s, vaccines, antibiotics & growth hormones, heavy metals (in food as well as ourselves), fluoride, fire-retardants (in food as well as soft-furnishing and clothing off the peg) aspartame, perchloroethylene or PERC in dry cleaning,  PBA – a commonly occurring plastic used in food production and other less known but similarly harmful plastics when used near food, sunscreens, household and personal cleaning products which virtually guarrantee the death of 100% of all known germs (hey, isn’t our microbiome full of germs, too?) & cosmetics, deodorants and other body lotions filled with pronounceable words like ‘parabens’ and other unpronounceable chemical names  – ‘because you’re worth it’, Genetically Modified Organisms, and pesticides are all highly inflammatory to the body and have already been found to be carcinogenic and endocrine disruptors.  If these substances are inhaled, ingested or in prolonged contact with the skin, the body will react to them over time, with an immune system response which may eventually lead to a diagnosis in conventional terms of a disease being pronounced from its observable symptoms, but sadly not its root causes. (It has been estimated that most cancers take between eight and twelve years before they are finally diagnosed in the doctors surgery as the dreaded C word and yet they have been growing undetected under the radar for years…)

There are approximately over 800 chemicals that are now widely spread in our environment which weren’t around a century ago and yet none of these chemicals have been tested for their likelihood to cause autoimmune disease and only a few have been tested individually as carcinogens – never together as they in fact appear within the greater environment. And I haven’t even mentioned increased pollution from EMF’s estimated to be 100 million times greater than it was fifty years ago….What the F are EMF’s…? (electromagnetic frequencies, the kind of radiation being emitted from the very computer screen or mobile phone upon which you are currently reading this, radiation levels estimated to be 100 million times more prevalent than half a century ago…)

And of course there is gluten which already mentioned, has been around humans for several millennia as part of our Western diet particularly, but of course now is more common than ever before in our wheat, rye and barley based foods because it has been hybridised over the past fifty years to have 50% more gluten than older natural strains.  AND of course we are consuming so much of it along with all the other unnatural foods in our ‘environment’ – processed and refined….Alone, one of these items in  this long list of substances that penetrate our bodies in different ways –  through radiation, skin, lungs and digestive tract – may not do too much damage (although high levels of radiation is always going to be lethal to the body) over the short term but cumulatively over long periods of time…. Are you starting to get the idea now?

Subsequently it isn’t hard to understand that if we are consuming substances and also surrounding our bodies all the time with potential poisons that in singular small doses are not necessarily going to kill you (think of vaccinations) but we are also exposing our bodies continually to other substances simultaneously which we also did not evolve with, on a  24/7/365 basis, maybe just maybe your body is at a tipping point for manifesting an autoimmune disease or other chronic condition currently plaguing our modern world?

And that canary reference earlier…

When I think about my own daughter’s conventional disease label: Type 1 Diabetes, I think about the loss of her essential pancreatic beta cells that should produce insulin. I think about her disease as an autoimmune condition which has seemingly randomly taken to destroy a part of her body which she needs, like anyone else, to survive unaided. I also now think that I have more of an idea about how her condition may have originated than I did at diagnosis four years ago  because I have learned so much about the root causes of autoimmune diseases from my own personal research over the past couple of years. When I think about my daughter’s condition I think of her and others like her (those with autoimmune diseases in general, not just Type 1) as a growing group of chronically sick people but individuals who have the potential to take their health back into their own hands if only they knew where to start looking. And what they put in on and surround their bodies at any one time is critically important.

I think if you ask most people what they think Type 1 diabetes is, they will inevitably confuse it with Type 2 diabetes due to some of the similar symptoms shared by the two separate diseases, unless of course, they are closely connected to someone suffering from the condition already. Most people get it wrong because as a society we have become conditioned to see symptoms and not  look for root causes of disease. Going back to Louis Pasteur at the beginning of this piece, his work happened at a time when acute medicine was king: symptoms being linked to causes and treated directly at source. Nowadays this still holds true with this particular branch of medicine as it always did. If you have a  severe haemorrhage, someone needs to stop the bleeding; septacaemia or blood poisoning  due to a deep infection does still need antibiotics. Unfortunately, nowadays everything has become confused  and most ordinary people have’t got a clue about the very real differences between acute and chronic disease and just how ill-equipped mainstream medicine really is at dealing with the latter. Chronic diseases really cannot and are not being successfully treated by this Germ theory based form of medicine and treating everything as if symptoms are God when it comes to disease. Chronic means incurable in  mainstream medicine simply because it is not looking at the root causes but applying the same methodology of acute medicine with drugs that generally just mask symptoms…

When I think of my daughter (and others with autoimmune diseases,)  I feel that she should first and foremost, be seen as not someone with just another incurable disease, with disparate symptoms to someone else with another chronic ‘incurable’ disease but instead perhaps be viewed as being a bit like a canary and how this little bird used to used in the mining industry.  You know, those yellow birds which would succumb to the effect of carbon monoxide poisoning quicker than the miners, thus being an early warning system to them to clear the mine or die of asphyxiation.

Autoimmune diseases, similarly, show us that if we all continue to expose our bodies to substances (with which we did not necessarily evolve) over varying periods of time our bodies (like miners ignoring the death of their canaries) we will die sooner (or become chronically ill) than if we learned to take care before this happens.   Autoimmune disease sufferers are like canaries because they are warning the rest of us (the miners) that we should take notice of the bigger picture.    In my daughter’s case, through my own research and the advice of my nutritional therapist friend, I have discovered that gluten is not something anyone – not just someone with an autoimmune disease already –  should not knowingly eat without a health warning. I now believe that if my daughter can continue avoiding gluten as much as possible in this ever increasingly gluten-filled world and reduce her exposure to other man-made poisons in the environment too, she will remain healthy (in spite of her ‘disease’) and hopefully avoid further autoimmune diseases like Coeliac’s Disease and Hashimotos (very commonly occurring nowadays in three’s with Type 1 diabetes).

Sadly, one  AI ‘labelled’ condition is becoming rarer as AI’s are increasingly occurring in three’s or more… My daughter is now known (through private blood tests available mostly in the US) to be non-coeliac gluten sensitive and avoids this glue-like substance for this very reason. (My only regret is that I wish I had known the dangers of gluten years before my daughter was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes and maybe she would not have gone down any autoimmune path at all…)

And  yet how many other canaries are out there are unknowingly exposing themselves to gluten AND other noxious substances which could have been avoided if only they had known the very real risks?