Can high stress make you Gluten sensitive?
Gluten is a much debated subject in today’s world. If you’ve listened to my very first Podcast on Functional Conversations with my colleague Vaish Sarathy of Functional Nutrition for Kids, we’ve explored everything about Gluten. If you haven’t listened yet, do take a listen. We’ve explored if it is a science or a fad, its connection to chronic disease, about wheat being an ancestral grain and the right way to go gluten free.
There are definitely contradictory opinions on gluten, and you might have also disregarded some of the research out there if you come from a tradition from which wheat is a major part of. You might even be wondering if you need to worry about gluten at all, if you do not have Celiac Disease or if you have not been tested positive for non Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.
In this article, I take a deep look at the bidirectional feedback between gluten sensitivity and the subsequent inflammation within your body, and stress and the subsequent Cortisol dysregulation and Adrenal fatigue.
Since we live in a world where we are in a constant state of stress, our bodies switch to living in a state of Sympathetic Nervous System response, or fight or flight. Ideally you should be in a state of fight or flight only in an emergency, such as running from an animal in Paleolithic times, and perhaps in a situation that requires your body to be different to survive. What happens to your bodies in a situation like this is your digestive system will practically shut down and your stomach will flood with acid, your blood will thicken preparing itself to coagulate if you are wounded, your immune system will go into a sleep mode since you don’t need to think about getting an infection in an emergency, you might evacuate your bladder and bowels and your adrenaline levels and Cortisol levels will spike. While Cortisol elevation is your body’s way of protecting you in a state of emergency, it should naturally come back to normal once that situation is past. Today, everything from your boss shouting at you to an vociferous argument with your spouse can make your body feel like it is in a state of emergency, and what this can do is keep your Cortisol consistently elevated, and never concluding the cycle where all your body systems come back to normal.
Let’s take a quick look now at what happens on your body if you are gluten sensitive. Most of us today have insufficient enzymes to break down this complex molecule and it results in a wide range of digestive distress. Undigested Gluten increases a Zonulin protein which wedges itself in the tight gap junction of the small intestine villi and creates gaps and leads to intestine permeability, or what is called the leaky gut. The permeability causes unbroken molecules of food into the bloodstream and your Immune system start battling those fractured food molecules which are not microscopic as they should be, and think that they are pathogens or foreigners. As the Immune system becomes confused, intestinal inflammation advances and immunity gets further compromised. Our detoxification channel is severely impacted, leading to increased toxic load from exogenous and endogenous toxins and multiple skin issues flare up, in an effort to rid the body of toxins via another channel of detoxification, the skin. Like the Villi which is permeable, the gut skin access also becomes permeable. Nutrient absorption is deeply impacted leading to multiple deficiencies and further problems in the body. With Leaky gut, comes leaky brain, or permeability in the Blood brain Barrier. The Blood Brain Barrier preserves the integrity of the Spinal cord and the Cranium. As the barrier becomes leaky, multiple brain challenges set in, from brain fog and anxiety, to depression and mental illness. As the Pituitary and the Hypothalamus, which control the Endocrine system are in the brain, it can lead to impact in any of the endocrine pathways and cause multiple downstream impact.
You might feel that you don’t need to worry about gluten sensitivity if you do not have Celiac disease or non Celiac Gluten sensitivity. Think again. Elevated Stress and Cortisol levels can make you gluten sensitive. Stress compromises the integrity of the gut, and since much of your immune system is situated within your gut, it compromises your immune function, and stress can cause you to become intolerant to gluten. Cortisol modulates your immune function, so elevated Cortisol from constant stress can impact your immune system, much of which is located in your gut, and this makes your gut extremely sensitive. A sensitive gut puts you at risk of developing gluten sensitivity, which is why many people who do not have Celiac disease, still react badly to gluten. Stress does cause an unnatural immune response, which is very similar to what happens in gluten sensitivity. So make a note to yourself that if you’ve been through a period of extreme stress, you might be more susceptible to gluten sensitivity and all of the challenges that come with it.
How does gluten sensitivity impact your ability to deal with stress? Well, if you are gluten sensitive, eating gluten is a stress on your body. There is a powerful connection between gluten sensitivity, inflammation from eating gluten and elevated Cortisol levels, which finally make you less resilient and less able to deal with the stress around you. Constant exposure to gluten if you are gluten sensitive can keep you in a state of constant stress, elevated Cortisol and eventually lead to Adrenal dysfunction when your body is not able to deal with that elevated Cortisol anymore. Some studies have found that gluten sensitivity particularly impacts your nervous system.
To conclude, you might not have Celiac disease, or non Celiac Gluten sensitivity, but the strong connection between gluten sensitivity and Cortisol tells you that you could become sensitive to gluten if you are in constant stress. Of course, this all comes back to finding ways that restore your resilience and improve your ability to manage the stress around you. One way is to keep reminding yourself that you are not a Hunter being chased by an animal. Begin to meditate, for meditation regulates Cortisol levels, making Cortisol work for you, as it is supposed to, rather than against you when it is excessive. If you do have gluten sensitivity, stay away from gluten, and avoid stressing your body and elevating your Cortisol levels, as it can contribute to leading you towards anxiety, depression and overall poor resilience to stress. All of these connections once again prove the bidirectional working of the gut and the brain!