A Simple Explanation of Gluten

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Interviewer: Doctor, can you just talk about what gluten is?  I think we hear a
lot about gluten sensitivity, but what is it exactly?

Dr. Tom O'Bryan: Yes, of course.  Gluten is a protein in many different grains.  Think of a protein like a brick wall. Digestion is taking the mortar off the bricks, and each brick is an amino acid.  Proteins are made up of amino acids. a

So to digest protein, we have to take the mortar off the brick wall so you have each individual brick.  The problem with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity is that we can't get the mortar off the bricks.

Instead of having one brick that gets absorbed into the blood stream, which is how it is supposed to be -- maybe two bricks. That's called a di-peptide.  What happens in both celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity is if someone took a sledge hammer and broke the wall into a bunch of clumps or pieces.  You've got a 33-brick clump, a 17- brick clump, a 21-brick clump.  You get these big clumps going into your blood stream.

When they get into your blood stream, the brain says, "Well, wait, what's this?  This is not good for me. I can't use this to build new muscle or new nerve hormones called neuro-transmitters.  I better fight this."

Then your brain tells the immune system, "Immune system take care of this," and the immune system makes anti-bodies to fight that clump which is called a peptide.  So we make anti-bodies to many different peptides of gluten, and then the immune system takes over.  Then come many different symptoms.

Interviewer: Why has this become a problem?  Has it always been an issue for some people, or are we just hearing about it more I think in the last 10-20 years?  Is there a reason for that?

Dr. Tom O'Bryan: Yes, there is.  Two fold answer, one, it's always been a problem to some degree.  In the last 50 years, it's called the 50/50 rule that the gluten content of wheat has gone up by over 50%, and gluten means "glue."  You have more glue in the wheat.  Why?  Because when you bake, the dough rises so you're stretching it, and the more glue there is, the better it sticks together.

The result is you've got lighter breads, lighter cupcakes, and things like that.  Commercially it's much better to have more gluten in the product, but the protein structure has changed as a result of having so much more gluten, and the digestive system can't break it down.  In the last 50 years it's become quite a problem.  That's the first answer.

The second answer is that it's actually becoming more prevalent.  Not just because of the gluten content in wheat, but also because of what's called a lack of oral tolerance.

When we take foods in to our digestive system, the immune system in the gut has to say "This is a friend.  This is a foe. Oh, this is a piece of celery. This is good for you. Oh, this is a bacteria.  This is not good for you."

Why is it that at a picnic only 5 people out of 20 that eat the potato salad get sick?  It's because the immune system in the gut is unable to take care of those five people. It's unable to take care of the bacteria that's grown in the potato salad.  For the others it says, "Oh, this is a problem.  Take care of it."

What's happened in the last three decades, actually since 1974, is that the oral tolerance -- our ability to differentiate between what's good for us and what's bad for us -- has gotten much more sensitive.  It's because of the increased number of toxins that we're exposed to in our environment.

We're overwhelmed.  We're overwhelmed by the number of toxins in our water, in the air, in all of the food.  You know they spray antibiotics on our vegetables now.  It's just a mess.  Our food supply is a mess.

Interviewer: Do we have any idea what percentage of the population may have gluten sensitivity?

Dr. Tom O'Bryan: Yes.  In terms of celiac disease, the consensus is about 1 out of 100, 1 out of 103.  Some studies have said 1 out of 85 to 90.  So, it's around 1 out of 100 ballpark.

In terms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, because it's such a new kid on the block in terms of being identified, there are no where near as many studies.

The studies that have come out have come out have said anywhere from 6%, which is 6 out of 100, to 1 out of 20, which is about 5%.  It's somewhere 5-6% so far that the studies are saying.

But new testing has come out in the last three years.  It's much more sensitive testing, and it's showing to be somewhere around 30-40% of the people that doctors are doing the tests on, meaning there is some reason to do the test. They're not well.  About 30-40% of them are coming back positive to anti-bodies to different clumps of brick, different peptides and gluten.


Dr. Tom O'Bryan explains exactly what gluten is and how our bodies react to it. Dr. O'Bryan also explains why gluten has become such a problem for so many people compared to a couple decades ago.

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