Celiac Disease, gluten intolerance, wheat allergy, wheat intolerance – are these all just fad ideas or are they real? I’ve always stayed away from the debate and never thought I had any kind of reactions to wheat or gluten. Was I blissfully unaware? It’s time to dig deeper into the topic of living gluten-free.
This is Part 2 of the Primally Simple Diet series, where I explore everything I have learned in the last 5 months since ditching and coming back to the Paleo diet twice. I will explain why I think a strict Paleo diet is flawed. We will also talk about the Wheat Belly, all the reasons why I failed on the Paleo diet twice, and what my diet is going to be like from now on. I hate labels, so there will be no more Paleo. Nobody really knows what Paleolithic people ate anyway, and there were so many diverse diets all over the world. The world isn’t the same anymore. I have no wish to be a fanatic. So I have created my own version of primal: The Primally Simple Diet.
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Alright, let’s get started with gluten and wheat, shall we?
Like I said in Part 1, I started experiencing weird symptoms when I started eating whole wheat sourdough bread. Of course, as always, I turned to Google, and searches kept coming back with a book called Wheat Belly: Lose the Wheat, Lose the Weight, and Find Your Path Back to Health by William Davis, MD. I’d heard of it a hundred times before, so I knew it was really famous, but I’d never really felt ready to read it. Well, I finally was.
Since reading the book, I’ve also subscribed to the Wheat Belly blog because I think it’s awesome. There is a wealth of information for anyone interested in eating healthier. I also really like how the author still answers to a lot of the comments by himself even though he must be a super busy man with a hugely successful career. I adore his sense of humour, too.
The Wheat Today Is Radically Different From The One Our Grandparents Consumed
Wheat (or the ancient wheat called einkorn) has been a staple in our diet for many thousands of years and it remained relatively unchanged right until around 60 years ago. If you asked your grandparents what wheat used to look like in their youth, they would probably describe a very romantic looking field with tall wheat plants swaying in the wind at sunset.
Well, it doesn’t happen anymore because around the middle of the 20th century, scientists decided to “end the world’s hunger problems” by heavily hybridising wheat and turning it to the frankenwheat that we have nowadays.
It was an initiative by Dr. Borlaug who invented the hybrid dwarf wheat. It is shorter and thicker, which allowed to increase the yield ten-fold. Doesn’t that sound crazy? Why would anyone think that they could mess with the nature like that without causing any kind of consequences to the health of the animals (or us, humans) consuming it?
Also, because hybridisation was not considered as dangerous as genetic modification, no tests or surveys were ever carried out to test the safety of the new hybrid wheat.
I wonder what Dr. Borlaug would say if he woke up now and realized what has been done. I think it’s a bit like the man who started manufacturing plastic. I bet he wouldn’t be happy now. Have you seen the documentary called Plastic Planet? It was made by Werner Boote, the man’s grandchild. It’s eye-opening, and I promise you’ll never look at plastic in the same way after watching it.
So What’s My Problem With Gluten? Or Is It Just Wheat?
Of course, the next natural question to ask myself was: am I reacting to wheat (which undoubtedly is a scary mutant) or to gluten? If it’s just the modern wheat, am I OK eating ancient wheat, such as spelt or kamut? If gluten doesn’t bother me, can I safely consume rye and barley? Or can I tolerate small amounts of gluten found in rye and barley, but not larger doses in wheat? Or am I truly gluten sensitive (or even worse – celiac) and need to eliminate all wheat-containing grains, including oats, which are often contaminated with gluten?
It’s dizzying and confusing, but it seems the only way to answer that question is by experimenting with my body. My gut feeling says I’m only sensitive to wheat, but I’d rather make sure it’s absolutely true before I make any kind of decisions. I’d love to go back to my occasional rye sourdough bread, but first I need to make sure my body can handle it.
Three Possible Outcomes: Celiac Disease, Gluten Intolerance and Wheat Allergy
To make things even more confusing, there seem to be three possible reasons why people react to gluten-containing grains or wheat.
First of all, some people suffer from the Celiac Disease. It seems to be pretty rare as only around 1% of people suffer from it, but, considering that the majority of people never even get to the diagnosis, that number might be higher. Celiac Disease is the most serious problem, where the small intestine is hyper-sensitive to gluten. There probably is no cell in the body that wouldn’t be affected by Celiac Disease if the person keeps consuming gluten. The list goes on and on, but the ones that stood out the most for me are:
- Malnourishment and deficiencies of various minerals and vitamins due to not digesting the food properly.
- Deficiency of magnesium (could that explain my constant troubles with magnesium?)
- Excessive mucus
- Skin problems
- Lack of enamel or very soft underdeveloped enamel and lots of cavities (yes, that’s totally me all the way from the childhood!)
- Irritated or recessed gums and mouth ulcers (I’ve had recessed gums since early teenage years and used to suffer from mouth ulcers a lot when I was a kid)
- Skin issues (anything from acne and seborrheic dermatitis to eczema and psoriasis)
- White spots on nails (I’ve always had more, but they’ve been driving me mad lately)
- Elevated blood sugar levels (I’ve been struggling with mine lately)
If you’d like to see the whole list, you can check it out here.
Celiac sufferers who fail to avoid gluten can experience as much as 77-fold increased risk for lymphoma and 22-fold greater risk for cancers of the mouth, throat, and esophagus. (Wheat Belly)
My sister had lymphoma, and celiac disease runs in families. Hmmmm, It’s definitely food for thought. I hope celiac disease is not what is troubling me, but I guess we’ll see in the future.
The next one on the list is gluten intolerance. Often, the symptoms mimic those of the Celiac Disease very closely, but there is no obvious gut damage. While celiacs would suffer even from inhaling some air mixed with flour when passing by a bakery or from eating a bowl of regular oats, those with gluten intolerance or sensitivity would probably not react so violently. The immune system would react to the protein in wheat (gluten), but some might be able to tolerate small quantities, so rye or barley might be OK; but wheat would be out of question. Some would react badly to even the smallest amount of gluten.
Confusing, right? I know… Why does it have to be so complicated? Let’s move on to the next one.
Wheat allergy is when people react to wheat itself and this is mostly because of all the hybridisation that has been taking place in the last 60 years. I’ve read that the majority of people are sensitive to modern wheat to a certain extent (some more than others), and it’s definitely worth being careful with it. The symptoms would be the traditional symptoms of histamine release: sneezing, runny nose, itchy and runny eyes, headaches, breakout or rashes, etc. Some people can even get a full anaphylactic shock. It’s no joke and we shouldn’t torture our bodies with wheat if it’s something we’re sensitive to.
So What Are The Ways To Found Out?
There seem to be three types of blood tests for Celiac Disease (all of the information is from Wheat Belly):
- Antigliadin antibodies (fail to diagnose 20-50% of all celiac sufferers)
- Transglutaminase antibody (identifies 86-89% of celiac cases)
- Endomysium antibody (more than 90% of celiac cases)
The latter one is the newest and most accurate one, but even that one fails to pick up a lot of the cases.
The only definitive way to diagnose is an intestinal biopsy, but it’s invasive and not really recommendable.
Most people don’t even have a full-blown Celiac Disease, but might still be getting a lot of the symptoms due to gluten intolerance. The intestinal biopsy would not pick it up, so what can be done?
The easiest, cheapest and most reliable way to find out is by trying an elimination diet. Get all the gluten containing grains and foods out of your diet for 30 days and see if you feel any different. If you feel amazing, that’s your answer! If you feel the same, try to reintroduce some gluten after the 30-day period. If you feel significantly worse, you’ve got your answer, too.
Then, you can also experiment adding different kind of grains and see if perhaps you can tolerate barley or rye just fine, but not wheat. Wheat is the most commercial grain out of all – that’s why it’s gone through so much hybridisation. However, rye and barley make up a tiny proportion of the entire amount of grains consumed, so the industry hasn’t really changed them much. That’s why they might be a much safer option.
My Plan Of Action for Wheat
My plan is to stay off wheat, rye, barley, and oats for 60 days to give my body enough time to completely get them out of the system. Once the time is up, I’ll be able to judge if I am sensitive to gluten or wheat. Then, I’m planning to reintroduce a little bit of rye sourdough and see how I do with it. However, I’m not planning to go back to eating wheat. If you read the Wheat Belly, I think you’ll understand why. There are just too many reasons not to (next time, we’ll be talking about the reasons why it’s a good idea to get rid of wheat).
If I am able to tolerate small amounts of rye occasionally, great! Otherwise, I’m perfectly fine with staying away from it forever if it means that my skin, teeth and the whole body can be healthier. Gluten grains have always been just an occasional treat for us anyway, so I’m sure I can deal with the loss. There are so many great alternatives!
How About Skincare With Wheat?
If you are allergic to wheat, it’s quite possible that you will react to skincare containing ingredients such as hydrolysed wheat protein, wheat gluten, wheat extract or wheatgerm oil. It’s an extremely popular ingredient in hair care and facial care.
When I started pondering the idea that I could be sensitive to wheat, I started thinking back to the moments when I had an extreme breakout or the moment when my scalp started becoming unhealthy, and my hair started falling out.
I realized that it was more or less at the same time when I started working at Harrods and started using Aveda products on my hair. I used them for roughly 4 years until we left London and I couldn’t afford them anymore (I could before thanks to the generous staff discount).
I also used to think that my hair was my biggest asset, but somehow somewhere along the line it started turning into my biggest headache.
I googled the ingredients of the Aveda Be Curly Shampoo, Conditioner and Curl Enhancer, and guess what? Hydrolysed wheat protein is in all of them and it’s pretty high up on the list! Wow, could that be what changed my hair so much?
Wow wow wow, my head was about to explode with thoughts by then.
Next, I remembered the moment when I had the biggest breakout of my life, which left my face itchy, burning, and full of cystic acne for 2 years! Luckily, I remember those kind of moments very well and I was able to recollect with the finest details what I did and what I ate that day. So here’s what I think happened:
Up until that day, I was using Liz Earle’s Cleanse & Polish cleanser, and it was working brilliantly. My skin had cleared up completely, and I was more or less spot-free for a couple of weeks. I met my friends to say goodbye just before leaving London, and we went out for a dinner together. We also popped into the Liz Earle store to pick up another cleanser for me, and the lovely ladies gave me a little tester of their light moisturizer for oily skin.
That night, I cleansed my skin as usual and put some of that new moisturizer on. My skin felt normal when I went to bed, but I remember waking up around 3am feeling that my face was literally burning, and I felt like scratching my skin off! Unfortunately, I was too lazy to get up and wash my face. When I woke up in the morning, my skin was red, irritated, and full of spots. That was the worst my skin had ever been and it took me 2 years to fix it.
Guess what I did next? Yes, you’re right – I went to Liz Earle’s website and found the ingredients of that naughty moisturizer. The first one on the list of the active ingredients was wheatgerm oil.
Oh my god, could that be why my skin went crazy that night? And could that be why it improved so much when I started using the Oil Cleansing Method and natural oils to moisturize? I got rid of the wheat ingredients.
I don’t know if that’s really what happened. But my gut feeling says it is.
I also went straight to my bathroom and checked the Green People products that I’ve been using lately. The Irritated Scalp Shampoo is wheat free – no wonder why my scalp is very happy when I use it. But the Daily Aloe Conditioner and the Light Hold Styling Gel both contain wheat. At much smaller quantities compared to Ayurveda, but it’s still there.
My 60-Day Gluten-Free Head-To-Toe Challenge
Here’s what I am doing for my wheat or gluten-free experiment:
- I’ve eliminated all gluten-containing grains and oats from my diet completely for 60 days.
- I got myself a new wheat-free conditioner as the old one was about to finish anyway. I really struggled looking for one as they were all either super expensive or not natural enough. I chose A’kin Unscented Wheat Free Very Gentle Conditioner, but I haven’t tried it yet, so I’ll update you on that later.
- In the meanwhile, I’ve been washing my hair using only the no-poo method with baking soda and apple cider vinegar.
- Instead of the styling gel, I’ve been using just water and jojoba oil. To be honest, I even prefer it to the styling gel.
I’ve been doing it for a couple of weeks now. I’m excited and can’t wait for the results. So far, my scalp is very happy, I’m noticing much less hairloss, but it fluctuates, so I can’t really say for sure yet. I’ll update you on everything once the 60 days are up.
So if you have suspicions that you might be reacting to gluten or wheat, try the elimination diet for yourself. It’s so simple, non-invasive, and can bring you incredible results if you’re truly sensitive to it. If you like a good challenge like me, you might even enjoy it. A lot!
Of course, I do crave a pizza some days. I do go through some withdrawal, but this time I’m determined to stick to the challenge.
Going gluten-free and going dairy-free are the two things that I’ve never tried for more than 30 days. Considering that they are the cornerstones of the Paleo diet, I understand I’ve never even tried it properly. I took the 80/20 rule and the Primal variation with dairy as my easy way out.
So now you know what I think of gluten, and dairy will be a topic for another day. Next time, we’ll talk about 5 reasons why wheat is messing with our bodies.
If you haven’t read the Wheat Belly yet, grab yourself a copy from Amazon. It’s eye-opening and a must read if you suffer from acne, depression, weight gain or cavities. If you’ve ever ever tried to become gluten or wheat free and struggled with motivation, I think you should read it, too. We often know that we should do certain things, but nothing motivates as much as actually knowing why.
Would you like to join me on my 60-day gluten-free challenge? Or are you already gluten-free? What improvements have you seen in your body? Let me know in the comments!
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Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, dietician or nutritionist. This is what I have learned observing my own body and researching endlessly. So please take my words as ideas, but research, think carefully, and consult your physician before making any decisions for your own health. This post contains some affiliate links for your convenience. I only recommend things that I absolutely love myself, and they’ve all been bought with my hard-earned cash.