Podcast Episode 56 Transcript – Why Do I Feel Better After Giving Up Gluten/Wheat?

Leah Higl:

Welcome to the Ideal Nutrition podcast. I am Leah Higl and I’m here with my co-host Aidan Muir, and today we’ll be discussing the reasons why you might feel better after ditching gluten. Gluten is a type of protein found naturally in wheat, rye and barley. Generally, I feel like gluten gets a really bad rap for not too much of a good reason, outside of celiac disease, but in my experience I’ve also had clients who don’t have celiac disease, have gone gluten free, and report that symptoms have reduced or they’re just feeling better. So even outside of something that is clearly obviously associated with gluten intake, being celiac disease, there are obviously other factors and other reasons why someone might feel better after reducing gluten or wheat products from their diet.

Leah Higl:

An interesting statistic is that the 2016 Australian dietary survey reported that 12% of their respondents were actually avoiding either wheat or gluten. 2016 was a while ago now so I’m sure things have changed but 12% is a good chunk of the population when we’re thinking just avoiding a certain type of food. So I think there’s a reason why people are opting to go gluten-free. I don’t think there’s absolutely no merit to it, so that’s what we’re going to go through today.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. And even, as you’re saying, 2016 being a long time ago, have you ever seen clips of people going up to people on the street being like, “Oh, do you avoid gluten?” And then they say yes. And they’re like, “Do you know what gluten is?”

Leah Higl:

“Do you know …” Yes!

Aidan Muir:

I feel like awareness of gluten’s actually grown so much since me seeing those clips years ago. I think it’s more well known, but I don’t know, I’m in a bubble, I talk about nutrition all the time.

Leah Higl:

I feel like we are in a bubble where we see more of that evidence based nutrition stuff, but if you go into like … I mean, I always think of the Kardashians when I think of gluten and that clip. And that’s what some people know of gluten.

So we want to expand on it a bit more.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. So I guess the first place to start is to start with the obvious one: why would somebody feel better after avoiding gluten? The obvious one is like celiac disease and wheat allergies. They’re not the only things, but we’re starting there with the obvious ones. Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition. Wheat allergy is an IgE mediated response to gliadins in wheat. Both of them are pretty serious. Both of them are no-brainers to stop having gluten or wheat in that case.

Aidan Muir:

I’m actually pretty big on checking these first. Like if you notice you get symptoms from weight or from gluten, I really like ruling this out first for two reasons. One is, if you have either of these, you really want to know that you have them. Wheat allergy, an allergy; it’s obvious. But with celiac disease, even small amounts, you’re doing some form of damage to yourself, whether that’s just inflammation in your bowels or whether it’s increasing risk of bowel cancer, osteoporosis, iron deficiency. There’s so many factors from even a small amount.

Aidan Muir:

But the second thing is it’s hard to test for celiac disease after you’ve taken it out. You have to do like a gluten challenge. So the first time you identify it, it’s like check this first. The percentages are quite low on these. Celiac disease, I think it’s about 1.5% of the population. So this is not me being like, “Oh, I think this is the reason.” It’s actually a lower percentage play, but it’s just more important to check this before looking at other stuff, if that makes sense.

Aidan Muir:

Do that first because it’s so much harder. Because if you take it out and you do get improvements, it sucks putting it back in just to test and just to be sure. But it’s also quite important to do that because if you’re not sure, you might just have some gluten occasionally, because you’re like, “Oh, I don’t know if I’ve got celiac disease.” And I say this, but I have had a lot of clients with that experience where they’re like, “Oh, I mostly avoid it, but if it’s really inconvenient, I’ll have it.”

Leah Higl:

Yeah, even like the cross-contamination stuff. If you only think you have celiac disease but you’ve never been confirmed and tested, you probably won’t go to the point where you’re avoiding cross-contamination, but we know people with celiac disease should avoid cross-contamination.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. And that’s where I’ve got a lot of empathy because I can see how somebody would be in that position, but that’s also, I’m like you would want to test this ASAP just to confirm.

Leah Higl:

Yeah. So the next one we’ll talk about is one of the more common reasons, I suppose, why people feel decent after taking gluten or wheat products out of their diet in general. And that’s the crossover between something called fructans and gluten and wheat products. Fructans are a FODMAP. So they’re a type of carbohydrate found in wheat products but as well as other foods like onion and garlic and a few other bits and pieces, but they are found in wheat products and they’re a fermentable carbohydrate that can be hard to digest for some people with IBS or sensitive tummies that are particularly sensitive to that FODMAP.

Leah Higl:

So when people remove wheat from their diet, they may inadvertently be reducing their overall fructan consumption, and then that could be reducing IBS like symptoms. So in regards to the research, actually I don’t have any numbers on me, but in terms of people that think they have what we’ll talk about next in terms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity versus just an IBS intolerance to fructans, it’s usually an IBS intolerance to fructans. So I think that’s one that is definitely the case a lot of the time when there’s pretty bad IBS symptoms, someone takes out gluten and that’s drastically improved, if it is not the two previous things we spoke about.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. The number I go with is from research from like many, many years ago, but there was something about like 13.7% of people seem to identify IBS type issues coming from fructan/gluten. And that’s quite interesting in terms of how closely it lines up with that, what was it, 12% you said earlier of people who were avoiding wheat/gluten.

Aidan Muir:

The numbers line up very closely. But I guess that does lead into the next topic in terms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity could be a reason why somebody would take it out. But it is that kind of thing you talked about being like I’m actually, based on the research, of the opinion that the vast majority of identified non-celiac gluten sensitivity is related to fructans, but one of two barriers there is that that only explains IBS symptoms. What if somebody gets other other symptoms like … And I guess like that’s a broad topic; we’ll go through it straight away, but it’s like other symptoms could be things like headaches, fatigue, brain fog, heartburn, joint pain, like muscle pain, itchiness, rashes, dermatitis, all of those kind of things. There’s all the non-gut related symptoms that can’t be fructans, and then there’s also the potential for overlap being like, okay, well maybe non-celiac gluten sensitivity could cause IBS symptoms as well and it’s not fructans in that case.

Aidan Muir:

There’s a study I don’t have in front of me once again, but it’s kind of like, they gave people fructan-containing muesli bars. They gave them gluten-containing muesli bars without fructans. And then they gave like a placebo, like a muesli bar that had neither gluten or fructans. And they measured their IBS symptoms. Obviously there’s flaws in this study, but most of the people who, because they all had to self-identify as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the majority got symptoms from the fructans and a very small minority still got symptoms from the gluten without the fructans.

Aidan Muir:

And that’s really interesting in terms of because the sample size is quite small, it doesn’t really tell us anything firmly, but it’s like, okay, well that’s still something worth being aware of. It adds a piece of the puzzle being like that could also be an explanation. But one of the other issues with this area and why it’s so murky is there’s no diagnostic criteria for non-celiac gluten sensitivity. So it’s a murky area. My current sense is I’m like, “Oh, I think it’s a thing.” I think it’s a thing, but it’s far less prevalent than the other things. It’s less serious than celiac disease. It’s less prevalent than fructans, but it’s still probably a thing. But yeah, that’s that’s my current stance.

Leah Higl:

Yeah. And I mean, generally, even though there’s no way to kind of confirm that someone does have that condition, I think if you’ve tested the first stuff we talked about and that all came back negative and you still generally feel better or reduce symptoms without wheat products, that just makes sense to continue it, right?

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. And I guess that’s the other point where it’s like, there’s heaps of people that come to me and will say like non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and I’ll hear them and like, “Oh, I think it’s actually fructans.” But it’s like, we’re not going to have that conversation early on because it doesn’t matter. Either way, they’re hand in hand; they’re both in wheat. And they’re in more stuff, like gluten technically is in more stuff. But going low gluten or going low fructans is pretty much the same thing and causes the same outcome.

Leah Higl:

Yeah, a hundred percent. So another aspect of this, I guess this could be, we can talk about this in regards to IBS symptoms. It can be other symptoms you might be experiencing that are not the non-IBS stuff, the non-gut stuff, but even in regards to weight loss and all the other reasons that someone might be changing their diet, taking out gluten to have a certain outcome is that you can just generally improve the quality of your diet around that taking out the gluten change.

Leah Higl:

I find when people want a specific outcome and they’re changing their diet, they usually change more than one thing. So if you have ditched gluten and wheat products generally, but you’ve also increased fruit and veg and reduced alcohol consumption, started exercising and eating less takeout, and that results in weight loss or feeling generally better, more energy, whatever it might be, it could be more related to the fact you’ve improved the quality of your diet overall, than the removal of gluten or wheat alone. So, that’s always something to consider.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. And firstly, like wheat, carbohydrates, people talk about that if you reduce carbs you’re probably going to reduce calories. But the other thing is any dietary change, if you add anything that’s exclusionary in any way, like you’ve got to avoid something, it limits your options.

Aidan Muir:

Even the first option that popped into my mind is like, if you go to Maccas, you can no longer get a burger. You’re limited there.

Leah Higl:

Makes takeout harder. You can’t have that muffin on the way home from work. Yeah, that’s true.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah. It limits you quite a bit. And then that probably leads to other decisions that you have to make like, do you now have to cook more frequently? Do you not get that thing on the way home? It plays a role in so many factors.

Aidan Muir:

And then the final one, it could be a placebo effect. That’s not me saying that’s what I think it is, because it’s not, I’m just like, we’re trying to cover all options and there is a possibility that is a thing that could potentially happen. There’s a lot of things that we can do that make us feel better or we expect to make us feel better, and then we do feel better [inaudible 00:10:56] that. All I’m saying with that is like, that is a possibility; we’ve listed like five different kind of ways it could make you feel better. That is one of the five and that is a potential factor as well.

Leah Higl:

So I don’t think there’s any doubt that there is merit in ditching wheat or gluten containing products outside of celiac disease and wheat allergy, particularly in terms of limiting your fructan intake in regards to limiting wheat products might help. Or when we talked about non-celiac gluten sensitivity, that might be something that you can relate to or it might be more related to generally changing your diet. But yeah, I think just writing it off as if you’re not celiac, you shouldn’t avoid gluten or wheat products is probably oversimplifying it a little bit.

I can totally see why some people are going to want to not eat wheat or gluten and find they have improved symptoms in some regard. And you can have a healthy diet without it, so I think it’s not a big deal.

Aidan Muir:

Yeah, for sure. And even just from the perspective of that 13% of the population likely getting symptoms, it’s like, that’s a pretty large percentage of the population. That’s enough and, I don’t know, if you identify yourself as having symptoms, there’s a highly likely … It’s no longer 13% if you identify you’re having symptoms. It’s probably going to be about 50% at that stage of those people. So yeah, food for thought.

Aidan Muir:

Anyway, this has been episode 56 of the Ideal Nutrition podcast. As always, if you could please leave a rating review, if you have not already, we would greatly appreciate that. But apart from that, thank you for listening.