Myth? Fad? Or reality?
Each year, more than 100 million Americans consume gluten-free products. While gluten-free is one of the most recent hottest food trends, many healthcare professionals argue that only those with an allergic or autoimmune response to gluten should avoid it.
But you might feel differently.
You may be one of the millions who haven’t been diagnosed with wheat allergy or celiac disease, but you still may feel better when you go without gluten.
Fortunately, non-celiac gluten sensitivity is now a legitimate disorder. Those with gluten sensitivity react to grains and products that have gluten, even though they haven’t been diagnosed with wheat allergy or celiac disease.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease. Like all autoimmune diseases, those with celiac have antibodies that target self.
If you have gluten sensitivity, you do not have an autoimmune response. But your body does mount a pro-inflammatory immune response when exposed to gluten. Similar to when you are invaded by a bug that gives you a cold, your immune system reacts.
Signs of gluten sensitivity can include:
- Abdominal pain, gas, and irregular bowel movements
- Headache or migraine
- Foggy mind
- Behavioral disorders, like autism or schizophrenia
- Joint and muscle pain
- Tingling fingers or toes
- Leg or arm numbness
Signs of gluten sensitivity tend to show up within hours to days of eating gluten, but a hard and fast diagnosis is tricky. In order to receive a diagnosis of gluten sensitivity, both celiac disease and wheat allergy must be ruled out. And symptoms must disappear when on a strict gluten-free diet.
The Difference Between Food Intolerance and Food Sensitivity
According to the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, food intolerance is marked by an inability to properly digest a certain food.
For example, lactose intolerance happens when the body doesn’t have enough enzymes or digestive power to break down milk sugars called lactose.
Wheat is another food that some people are unable to tolerate.
Whether it’s lactose or wheat, signs of food intolerance mostly show up in your gut, where food ferments (because the body isn’t able to break it down). As food ferments, gas is released. This causes bloating, abdominal pain, and irregular bowel movements.
Probiotic foods and a low-FODMAP (fermentable oligo- and disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) diet can relieve signs of food intolerance.
If you have wheat intolerance, you feel better when you eat grains that have been soaked, sprouted, and fermented.
On the other hand, food sensitivities call on the immune system. Signs of food sensitivity are not limited to the gut.
If you have gluten sensitivity, your body mounts an immune response to gluten-containing grains like wheat, rye, and barley. The only sign of your sensitivity to gluten may be a migraine or eczema, while your digestion “feels fine.”
The Zen of Gluten-Related Disorders
Wheat allergy. Celiac disease. Wheat intolerance. Gluten sensitivity. Are you confused yet?
These are all problems that fall under the umbrella of gluten-related disorders:
Wheat allergy: Marked by an immune response. Happens within minutes to hours of eating wheat. Symptoms are seen in the gut and beyond.
Celiac disease: Marked by an autoimmune response. Can take hours to weeks to show up. Symptoms are seen in the gut and beyond.
Wheat intolerance: Marked by an inability to break down wheat. Happens within minutes to hours of eating wheat. Symptoms appear mostly in the gut.
Gluten sensitivity: Marked by an immune response. Can occur hours to days after eating gluten. Symptoms are seen in the gut and beyond.
If you think that you are sensitive to gluten and that it triggers an immune response, completely avoid gluten-containing grains like modern wheat, rye, barley, and spelt. Besides gluten, these grains contain enzyme inhibitors that stir up a response from the immune system and intensify your reaction to gluten.