Can’t I Just Have Gluten Every Now and Then?

This is a very frequent question for those who have or are thinking about eliminating gluten from their diet. This is especially critical for those who have autoimmune or any chronic condition, Celiac Disease (CD- gluten allergy), or Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS – sensitivity or intolerance to gluten).

The answer to whether you can cheat just every now and then by consuming gluten is a resounding, emphatic, adamant, compelling, unequivocal, NO. Let me repeat that. No, No, No, No, No, No, Nooooooooooooo.

Now that we got that out of the way, let me explain what gluten is, why it is so damaging, and why it is critical that you are 100% gluten free if you have CD, NCGS, an autoimmune condition, or many other chronic conditions.

What is Gluten?

To avoid getting too technical, I’ll provide the basics and leave more scientific details for another post.

Gluten refers to the proteins found in specific cereal grains. Specifically those grains are wheat, spelt, rye, barley, and triticale, a hybrid between wheat and rye. However, even if you do not consume those grains, it is nearly impossible to not be exposed to gluten in some form without clear intent in avoiding it. This includes cross-contamination (e.g., other grains such as oats, cooking surfaces, etc.), a significant amount of processed foods (unless they are certified gluten free), personal care items (you use them and do not thoroughly wash your hands), and numerous other items that put us at risk of gluten intake. I will expand on the many ways we are exposed and what we can do about it in a future post.  Let’s get back to what gluten is.

Gluten is composed of both gliadin and glutenin. Gliadin seems to be the culprit that wreaks the havoc in our bodies. For the sake of this post and future ones, I will use mostly use the term gluten (when referring to it generally) since it is most well-known. 

How Does Gluten Cause Damage?

We naturally produce enzymes that digest proteins we consume. However, our enzymes have difficulty breaking down the gliadin protein. This is true regardless whether someone has CD or NCGS.  Gliadin is resistant to enzyme digestion for those who have an allergy or sensitivity to gluten.

The protein in gluten also stimulates the release of zonulin. Zonulin helps regulate leakiness in the gut (intestinal permeability) by opening and closing the spaces or small intestine “tight junctions” between cells.  The more zonulin released, the more the tight junctions are opened and the leakier the intestinal wall will be. This applies to everyone, not just those who have CD or NCGS.

The small intestine contains villi, which are fingerlike tissue projections that increase the surface area to maximize nutrient absorption. The photo below shows healthy villi (photos a & b) that can absorb nutrients and protect from bad guys, along with a progression to damaged villi that are unable to do so (photos e & f).

Image Source: Celiac disease: diagnostic criteria in progress @ Cellular and Molecular Immunology

A healthy gut lining in the small intestine allows digested nutrients from what we consume to appropriately enter our cells such as in the photo below.

Image Source: Surprises from Celiac Disease by Alessio Fasano. 2009 Scientific American, Inc.
Image Source: Surprises from Celiac Disease by Alessio Fasano. 2009 Scientific American, Inc.

Undigested gluten bypasses this process. Instead of it following the path of other indigestible particles (e.g., fiber) into our colon, it enters our bloodstream, where it is not supposed to be.

This causes intestinal permeability which results in inflammation. As I continue to stress, inflammation leads to dysfunction, which leads to disease.

The body sees these particles are foreign invaders and just like our body was created to do with invaders, it attacks them. Every time your body is exposed to a dangerous outside invader, your immune system memorizes its structure, specifically its protein sequence, so that it can develop the perfect defense to that pathogen and recognize it in the future. Each time this process happens, more anti-bodies are created to attack. This is a trigger to autoimmune and other adverse health conditions.

Though the problem starts in the gut, adverse symptoms and health conditions are not limited to the gut. Don’t be fooled. Many with CD or NCGS have problematic symptoms that are not gastrointestinal such as pain and fatigue and they are difficult to associate with consuming gluten.

Why is it not ok to ever cheat – even just consuming a small amount of gluten?

Then length of time it takes to recover from the intestinal damage caused by consuming gluten varies significantly. For healthy individuals who do not have CD or NCGS it may only take a few days to a few weeks and most of the time they are asymptomatic and their bodies recover without developing chronic inflammation.

For those with CD or NCGS or other confounding factors, even on a gluten-free diet, it could take from 1.5 – 2 years to 5 years or longer with some never fully recovering.

Confounding factors include: gut inflammation, nutritional deficiencies, dysbiosis and poor microbiome environment, infections, stress, and chronically elevated insulin.

This means that when you cheat, even the tiniest amount, you start the cycle of inflammation all over again. You do not enable your body the chance to recover and you contribute to being in a constant state of chronic inflammation. Don’t confuse the damage that is being done to your body with the severity of your symptoms. Whether your symptoms are severe or not, the inflammation is causing damage and can be an invisible invader until it is too late.

The damage is not just limited to your gut. It affects many tissues and areas in your body (liver, heart, brain, endocrine system, nervous system, blood vessels) and it continues to
accumulate unless you are 100% gluten free.

I get that we live in a society of convenience and instant gratification but that doesn’t make it wise. Cheating is just not worth the short-term enjoyment you get from consuming gluten versus the long-term damage and adverse impact on your health. As chronic inflammation progresses, it can literally reduce your quality of life and shorten your life span.







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