GLUTEN 101 “The cereal killer”

No food is a more powerful trigger of neurological issues and autoimmunity than gluten, the protein found in wheat and present in other foods. The average person gets exposed to, or knowingly consumes food containing gluten every single day which is why we are seeing a dramatic increase in gluten sensitivity in todays modern world.

The name gluten comes from the latin word for “glue”, due to the glue-like quality it gives wheat products, resembling an elastic, chewy-like texture. Gluten can be found in wheat, spelt, barley, rye, kamut, malts, and other foods such as sauces & condiments that contain gluten as a thickening agent. Most oats, unless certified as gluten free are often contaminated with gluten because they are either grown in rotation with wheat or processed in the same facilities where wheat is handled. The same goes for corn, and other crops.

Based on emerging research, there’s even such a thing as what’s referred to by scientists as ‘corn gluten’ which are the proteins within corn itself that can actually mimic those in gluten & potentially lead to the same architecturally damaging mechanistic effects as wheat gluten. I’ve had patients who were regularly eating non GMO blue corn thinking they are making a smart choice, wondering why they have intestinal hyper-permeability, and their immune system is overactive on high alert. When we removed the corn, their overall condition improved.

While on the topic of corn; corn is also one very common delayed-onset (IgG) food allergen. In other words, you may feel fine eating it; in-fact, you may feel great after eating it, or even be drawn to it… but can receive a delayed allergic reaction/symptom anywhere up to 3 days after. This can manifest anything from sleep disturbances, mood issues, headaches, brain fog, gastrointestinal or bowel movement changes, a skin rash… the list is endless.

A question I have on my new patient intake questionnaire is “Are there any foods in particular that either you crave, gravitate towards, or find yourself wanting to eat on a regular basis?” The reason I ask this question is because anytime an individual is consistently drawn to a certain food or foods, it should always be questioned, especially when the person is suffering with functional wellness issues. The reason for this is that in some cases, it can be easily missed or overlooked as the food in question may actually be something that is a fairly nutrient-dense single ingredient whole food, yet at the same time be a negative force in the overall context that is indirectly causing problems.

There are times when our body draws us to certain foods that contain specific macro/micronutrients that it may be missing or requiring, such as individuals who crave fatty foods because they have a deficiency in essential fatty acids, have fat malabsorption or issues with fat  metabolism. However, this innate magnetism that draws us to certain things we need can often go out the window when an person isn’t in an optimal state of health. The feedback mechanisms & signals that reach the brain are confused, or distorted by other signals that interfere with normal function. As a simple example, an individual may crave simple sugars thinking they have a need for the sugars themselves. Now while this may technically be true in that their brain requires glucose for fuel – the question is always why…? Why sugar? What’s the clinical context…?

The answer is that there could be many factors to consider… Maybe the individual has pathogenic infections, microbial imbalances, or digestive system dysfunctions. Maybe they have metabolic disorders effecting energy metabolism, or cellular uptake of nutrients resulting in mitochondrial impairment in the production of ATP. Maybe they have glycemic dysregulation due to imbalances in their glucocorticoid hormonal activity which is effecting the release of stored sugars into the blood to go on to feed the cells of the body. It could be all of the above, and more, meaning that consuming sugar (that you were drawn to) will not address the problem… in fact, it can often exasperate their problem, causing further metabolic & hormonal instability.

Below I’ve compiled my top 20 common delayed-onset (IgG) allergenic foods that I commonly see in Functional Medicine Practice. It’s worth noting that some individuals may have harboured a legitimate antibody response by the immune system tagging some of these foods as antigens, whilst others may have developed sensitivities or intolerances as a result of other underlying issues involving dysfunctional digestive systems, immune systems, methylation, and/or other metabolic disorders. Then there’s those that have combination of both.


  • Gluten/Gliadin inherently in wheat, rye & barley – or from cross-contamination of other grains during harvest or processing. Also gluten as a food additive.
  • Cows Milk/Casein/Lactose
  • Yeast
  • Egg whites/yolks
  • Cashew nuts
  • Coffee
  • Garlic
  • Soy
  • Brazil nuts
  • Almonds
  • Corn (even organic non-GMO blue corn)
  • Hazelnuts
  • Oats
  • Lentils
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Oranges
  • Chilli peppers
  • Sesame & sunflower seeds
  • Chocolate
  • Peanuts

Many people eat foods containing gluten on a daily basis, and because they don’t experience any known digestive issues when they eat these foods, they believe that they are fine eating them, and continue to do so.

Some people are even drawn to eating casein/gluten-based foods because of how it makes them feel after eating them. This is down to the fact that they both produce opioid peptides (proteins) called “gluteomorphins” & “casomorphins” as part of digestion. These are powerful morphine-like compounds that occupy the same receptors in the brain as the highly addictive drug heroin. Hence the part of the name ‘morphine’ which is also highly addictive. In addition, gluteomorphins are often present in urine samples of children I work with who have autism & ADHD when we carry out a comprehensive functional metabolic assessment. These morphine-like compounds can literally make a person feel high, as if on an illegal substance when they eat them. But as the saying goes ‘what goes up, must come down’ – and similar to a junkie who’s buzz is starting to wear off, and needs another hit – these will make you crave more. All the while, behind the scenes, stirring up a cytokine storm manifesting in inflammation, immune system over-activation, hormone dysregulation, and physiological damage to the architecture of the GI tract, namely the villi which I’ve written about before in one or my previous articles some time ago but I’ll briefly recap for those that missed it.

The villi are the finger-like projections that are part of the architectural landscape of the intestinal tract that are responsible for absorbing the nutrients we consume. Think of the bottom of the sea-bed where you see all the underwater plants swaying to-and-fro. It is this damaging of the villi that is the very same physiological mechanism that occurs in celiac disease.

Gliadin is so destructive to the delicate tissues of the intestinal tract that it causes degeneration of the cells, wasting them away to virtually nothing, very much like the muscular atrophy that occurs in the legs of a person who has been confined to a wheelchair. This deterioration of the villi results in a blunting-like effect known as ‘villous atrophy’ which significantly reduces the surface area in which nutrients are absorbed resulting in malabsorption, and malnutrition. It’s worth noting that you don’t have to be diagnosed celiac, or be acutely gluten intolerant to suffer with villous atrophy. This occurs in many people who have compromised digestive/immune system function.

In addition, this pathological mechanism also affects the brush board enzymes which are digestive enzymes that reside on the surface of the intestinal microvilli themselves. These enzymes include amylase, cellulase, invertase, and lactase which help us breakdown & absorb certain foods. Intestinal damage & intestinal permeability can destroy the microvilli and brush board enzyme activity, seriously hampering the digestive process. I do not recommend bromelain or pancreatic enzymes if a person has a tested positive for transglutaminase antibodies and has villous atrophy where they are maybe suffering with bloating after eating, anaemia, weight loss and other symptoms such as malabsorption. The reason being is that these particular enzymes can digests the villi and make the person’s situation worse. Plant-based enzymes are a safer option in the case of damaged GI tracts.

Another dysfunctional mechanism that results from physiological damage of the intestinal architecture is the phenomenon known as ‘crypt-hyperplasia’ which is the deepening of the crypts that sit between the villi which you can see in the image above. Pathogenic organisms love hiding out places where they can’t be got to by the immune system. As these crypts get deeper, these infectious organisms can burrow deeper where they can’t be got at, making them more difficult to penetrate/eradicate. The deeper the crypts, the deeper the infection, the harder to reach.

The two main families of gluten proteins are called gliadins and glutenins, with gliadin being the main offending gluten.

Deamidation, which is used extensively in the food-processing industry, has also made gluten more immunoreactive. Deamidation uses acids or enzymes to make gluten water soluble (it is normally only soluble in alcohol) so it mixes more easily with the other foods. Although deamidation makes wheat easier to use, he has also been shown to create a severe immune response in human beings. A double blinded placebo controlled study found subjects did not react to native wheat flour but reacted severely to the deamidated wheat. The researchers concluded deamidation of wheat generates new substances that activate the immune system. Another study published in the European Journal of inflammation concluded deaminated gluten is a new food compound and maybe the major cause of hidden inflammatory responses to foods.

The hybridisation and deamidation of wheat appears to play a role not only in the sharp increases of gluten sensitivity and coeliac disease, but also in inflammation, degeneration, and even autoimmunity of the brain and nervous system.

A particular form of the gliadin called ‘Alpha gliadin’ is highly inflammatory on the intestine causing abdominal cramps and diarrhoea due to its unique ability to pass through the intestinal wall. Once it passed through it triggers the release of a protein called zonulin, which literally prizes open the purposely designed tight-gaps, or junctions in between intestinal cells, increasing gastrointestinal permeability. This, in turn means that whole-food proteins can cross that gut barrier, triggering the immune system to react, which is the basis for developing food intolerances.

There’s been a number of people over the years who when they originally came to work with me felt because they weren’t diagnosed as celiac, and had no GI symptoms, that they had no problems eating foods containing gluten. They didn’t stop to consider how or why they had developed autoimmune conditions, arthritis, neurological issues, Fibromyalgia & CFS to name just a few. This is often the point where I have to educate these individuals as to the reality of the situation, which is of course always backed up by evidence-based data from the functional labs we run, which tell a very different story to their own perception.

When it comes to the main differences between the gluten sensitivity & celiac, I’ve broken both down in very simple terms…

Gluten sensitivity is defined as an exaggerated immune response to gluten that leads to inflammation throughout the body and has the potential to develop into an autoimmune reaction, in which the immune system attacks and destroys the body or brain tissue.

Celiac disease is a more severe reaction to gluten in that the physiological damage has got so bad that it causes autoimmune destruction of the gastrointestinal tract, and permanent damage to the functional architectural landscape.


As a functional medicine clinician with 2 science degrees – I’m all about evidence-based research backing up everything I do, and supporting the clinical decisions that I make. It’s been clearly identified in the scientific literature through numerous gastro and enterology studies of the sharp rise in gluten sensitivity over the last 50 years from one in 700 to 1 in 100. Most of the studies only evaluated celiac disease and not the less severe but more common form of immune reaction to gluten, gluten sensitivity. If researchers had looked for gluten sensitivity as well, I’ve no doubt that the numbers would’ve been even more dramatic. Studies continue to happen on this topic.

The gluten that is eaten today is not the same type that maybe you ate as a child, or your parents or grandparents ate. The same goes with a lot of the foods we commonly eat today. Although not technically genetically modified (GMO), gluten has nevertheless been significantly hybridised and deaminated over the years – processes that have rendered it highly  inflammatory to humans. Unlike GMO, which inserts or deletes genes; hybridisation creates a new protein by combining different strains of wheat. This can alter a protein sequence by as much as 5%, making it quite different from the original source. Scientists believe that hybridisation of wheat has created a “new wheat “, only that appears more prone to trigger immune reactions, especially in the brain and nervous system.

What’s the take home here… well, as a general rule, I personally avoid gluten 90% of the time. That being said, If I take my children out for a pizza, burgers and ice cream as a treat, I’ll enjoy every single glutenous mouthful & have zero guilt after. Neither will I be effected because of my robust state of health. For others who are either immune compromised, or have a weakened state of health, it’s advisable to avoid foods containing gluten as they won’t be helping your situation. In most cases, they will actually be worsening it. You have to ask yourself- Is the trade worth it…? Functional wellness vs gluten?

Thank you for your attention.

*By Steve Hawes