Grains and Gut Health
There’s a hot debate out there all about grains. Are they an essential food group which provide the foundation for a healthy diet or are they dangerous little things which cause chronic inflammation and wreak havoc in our gut?
In this article we’ll discuss the arguments for and against eating grains.
What are grains?
A grain is the edible fruit of a plant. They’re different from seeds, which are plant embryos.
Some, but not all, grains contain the protein gluten. Gluten grains include wheat – comprising bulgur, couscous, durum wheat, spelt and semolina – rye, barley and most oats.
Non-gluten grains include corn or maize, rice and oats if certified gluten-free.
Some seeds are often confused with grains, such as quinoa, millet, amaranth and buckwheat.
Grains can either be whole or refined. Whole grains include the outer husk, and are a good source of fibre, as well as vitamins and minerals like magnesium, iron, and B complex vitamins. Often grains are refined which means removing the outer husk and along with it the fibre and most of the nutrients.
Grains also naturally contain carbohydrate and moderate amounts of protein. Whole grains can therefore be a useful source of these nutrients as well as energy.
Leaky gut or increased intestinal permeability occurs when the lining of our intestines becomes less selective. It then allows substances into the bloodstream which would ideally remain inside the intestines – for example incompletely digested food particles, bacteria or toxins, which should be eliminated in the stool.
Our intestinal lining naturally has many tiny gaps between its cells known as ‘tight junctions’. If the space between them becomes too large, leaky gut is the result.
A protein called zonulin, produced by the intestinal cells themselves, causes the gaps in tight junctions to expand.
Grains and Digestive Health
Grains, especially wheat, contain lectins. These are a type of protein believed to help protect the plant against insect pests.
Research has found eating large amounts of lectins may cause inflammation and irritate the gut wall, damaging the intestinal lining. They can also decrease nutrient absorption and may disrupt the balance of the gut bacteria.
Lectins can be deactivated by soaking, fermenting and sprouting.
- Phytic Acid
Grains contain a substance called phytic acid, which can bind to minerals such as iron, calcium and zinc in the intestines, preventing their absorption.
Phytic acid can be reduced by soaking, sprouting, boiling or fermenting – as in sourdough.
Gluten forms a sticky mass when mixed with water, which is why it’s ideal for bread making. Because gluten is a large and complex molecule, this may mean it’s not fully broken down if our digestive enzymes or stomach acid aren’t doing their job effectively enough.
If gluten is absorbed into the blood before it’s completely digested, the immune system may mistake it for an invader, leading to gluten intolerance.
However, many people report their troublesome digestive symptoms improve after eliminating gluten grains, even if they don’t have a detectable intolerance to gluten.
Gluten is comprised of a combination of other proteins, one of which is called gliadin. This has been found to cause the release of zonulin, so contributing to increased intestinal permeability.
Grains, including gluten grains are an ancient food source which have been used for thousands of years. It’s likely they did not dominate the diet, however, until farming evolved.
It’s only relatively recently grains have become associated with digestive health issues.
Nowadays grains, particularly gluten grains, are extremely widespread in our modern diet, largely as refined grains in processed foods. It’s easy to eat grains with every meal and snack.
Grain crops have been bred over the years to have higher gluten content, so most people consume far more gluten than our ancestors did.
Enjoy grains in moderation
Grains can be a part of healthy food choices as long as they’re not allowed to dominate the diet. Variety is the key. But remember we are all different and some people will be able to tolerate grains better than others.
It’s sensible to stick to unrefined grains, choose ancient wheat grains when you can which naturally contain less gluten, and eat organic, as most grains are routinely treated with fertilisers and insecticides. Sprouting, soaking and fermenting grains can reduce some of their antinutrients. Be wary of pre-packaged gluten-free products which are high in sugar and salt to increase their palatability.
If you would like to explore how grains may be affecting your gut health, a consultation with a Functional Medicine practitioner can look at your unique lifestyle, health history and nutritional status. Appropriate testing may be recommended to establish the condition of your intestinal lining as well as to detect any intolerances to grains.