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What’s Gluten and Why Is It Important?

Raspberry Pie Raspberry Cake Cakes  - manfredrichter / Pixabay
An overview of what gluten is, what medical conditions cause people to avoid it, and whether it's safe to consume.
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Gluten-free products can be found almost everywhere. Similar to how many foods are labeled as “nut-free” or “dairy-free,” the idea of gluten-free items has entered the public consciousness.

However, despite how common it is to find things that are gluten-free, most people are still largely unaware of what gluten is and why certain individuals try to avoid eating it.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a type of protein found in many different kinds of grains, primarily wheat, but it can also be found in rye and barley.

It acts as a major structural component of the plant, and when flour is made into dough, gluten is the molecule that holds everything together, making dough sticky and allowing it to be molded into a singular mass with relative ease.

When it comes to making various foods, especially bread, gluten is an indispensable component.

Why Do People Try to Avoid Eating It?

There are several conditions people might have which can make the consumption of gluten problematic.

The most common reason is celiac disease.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a medical condition where the consumption of gluten proteins causes an individual’s immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine. This can cause immediately unpleasant symptoms, such as inflammation, abdominal pain, bloating, and nausea.

Over time, though, celiac disease can cause significant damage and prevents the absorption of many key nutrients, which can lead to malnourishment. Anemia, nervous system damage, and mouth ulcers are all common long-term symptoms of celiac disease.

Celiac disease is largely caused by genetic, rather than environmental, factors, and there really isn’t a treatment available to cure it. However, it can be well-managed through eating a gluten-free diet, which prevents most intestinal damage. Hence, the demand for gluten-free foods.

Gluten Sensitivity

Another condition that makes the consumption of gluten problematic is gluten sensitivity. Symptom-wise, this manifests itself similarly to celiac disease as it causes problems such as bloating, diarrhea, and abdominal discomfort. However, it lacks many of the devastating issues which accompany celiac, such as intestinal damage. Nonetheless, gluten sensitivity can cause many serious quality of life issues.

Gluten Ataxia

While rare, a potential issue with consuming gluten is if someone has gluten ataxia. This is a disorder where the presence of gluten in the body causes the immune system to attack the cerebellum, the part of the brain that’s responsible for motor function.

Gluten ataxia is a difficult thing to detect, and it’s progressive, meaning that it gets worse over time. Initial symptoms include coordination issues and slurred speech, but can eventually become disabling if left unattended to.

For people with this condition, avoiding gluten is an absolute must.

Is Gluten Safe to Eat?

For most people, eating gluten is completely safe and harmless. The aforementioned conditions are relatively uncommon in the general population.

Although gluten issues aren’t that common, for those that do have them, the consequences can be incredibly serious; reducing quality of life at best and causing disability at worst.

While it’s perfectly fine for most individuals to skip gluten-free products, they should still be mindful of those who don’t have that option.