What is Gluten Intolerance?
Gluten is a protein found in cereal grains like wheat, barley, and rye. It’s what makes dough so stretchy and elastic. In people with celiac disease, ingestion of gluten can cause a severe immunological response. Celiac disease affects about one in 133 people. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, however, could affect a much higher percentage of the population. Although research on gluten intolerance is still in its infancy, some experts believe that anywhere from 6% to 30% of the population could suffer from gluten intolerance.
What causes Gluten Intolerance?
Gluten can set off an immunological reaction in the stomach and/or intestines in some people. Research is still in its preliminary stages, and there is no test or defined set of symptoms for gluten intolerance. At its core, gluten intolerance is caused by an inability to properly digest gluten. In one study, researchers compared intestinal biopsies from healthy patients, patients with celiac disease, and patients with suspected gluten intolerance. Those with gluten intolerance didn’t have the ‘leaky’ intestinal walls found in patients with celiac disease, and their response to gluten came from innate immunity rather than adaptive immunity. No underlying cause for gluten intolerance has yet been discovered.
Who is at risk?
There are no identified risk factors for gluten intolerance, although some scientists speculate that having a family member with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity could make one more susceptible. Some doctors have noted a link between gluten intolerance and autoimmune conditions like autoimmune thyroid disease and multiple sclerosis, but there is no broad consensus.
Signs and Symptoms
Because gluten intolerance causes the body to mount a stress response, people with this intolerance may suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms when they ingest products containing gluten. There are also some surprising symptoms that appear unrelated to the gastrointestinal tract, such as headaches, fatigue, depression, joint pain, and a feeling of ‘brain fog.’ The symptoms of gluten intolerance are very similar to the symptoms of celiac disease – it’s impossible to distinguish between the two just by looking at symptoms.
Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance:
- Numbness in the legs, arms, or fingers
- “Foggy mind”
- Joint pain
- Stomach pain
- Bloating, gas, and cramps
- Nausea and vomiting
- Constipation or diarrhea
Although there is no test for gluten intolerance, doctors can test to see if a patient has elevated levels of antibodies to gluten. If you have non-celiac gluten intolerance, these antibodies will not be present, so a test can only rule out celiac disease. The best way to determine if you are gluten intolerant is to first get tested for celiac disease. If the test comes back negative, eliminate gluten from your diet. If, over the course of several weeks, you find that your symptoms are relieved and you’re feeling better, you may have gluten intolerance.
Just like there is no cure for celiac disease, there is no cure for gluten intolerance. You can manage the symptoms of gluten intolerance simply by avoiding gluten as much as possible. This is becoming much easier than it used to be due to a growing awareness of gluten intolerance. Many products now come in gluten-free versions, and you can request gluten-free meals at restaurants. Some food items will indicate whether or not they are gluten-free on the packaging. A small amount of gluten may not be detrimental to your health in the long term, but it can cause discomfort and recurrence of your symptoms.
Foods to avoid if you are gluten intolerant:
- Pasta and rice
- Soy sauce
- Salad dressings