Gluten Intolerance vs. Sensitivity
Health issues related to the inability to properly digest and assimilate gluten are becoming increasingly common, and can range from gluten sensitivity to full blown celiac disease.
Celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are associated with a wide variety of diseases, from osteoporosis, to dermatitis, Hashimoto's hypothyroidism, and peripheral neuropathy.
- Celiac Disease
Individuals who are diagnosed with an inability to digest the proteins in gluten have a condition known as celiac disease.
- Gluten Sensitivity
Gluten sensitivity (also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS) occurs when the body reacts to gluten, but is not as potentially threatening as celiac disease. It can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, stomach pains, and contribute to IBS (irritable bowel syndrome).
Celiac disease, also more casually referred to as a wheat or gluten intolerance, is an autoimmune condition that occurs when your body cannot digest the protein found in products containing gluten. It is a serious condition now affecting at least 1 in 133 Americans and is very damaging to the body. There are an estimated 3 million Americans living with celiac disease, with only a fraction of this number diagnosed.
With celiac disease, the body’s immune system attacks normal tissue, including the tiny hairs in the small intestine called villi. These villi absorb vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients. As the villi are slowly destroyed over time, the small intestine becomes increasingly damaged and less able to absorb nutrients from all foods, leading to a range of malnutrition-related health problems. Celiac disease can cause damage to more than just the small intestine. It can also damage tissues throughout the body, including the brain, skin, endocrine system, stomach, liver, blood vessels, muscles, and even the nucleus of cells.
Seeing a doctor for testing is the only way to confirm celiac disease. If left undiagnosed and untreated, continuing to consume gluten products can dramatically increase your risk of developing intestinal cancer, as well as other serious health conditions including autoimmune disorders, neurological problems, and osteoporosis.
Celiac disease has many symptoms that can adds to the difficulty in narrowing this condition down, but the common of these symptoms include:
- Chronic diarrhea or constipation
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained weight loss
- Nutritional deficiencies
- Fatigue/chronic fatigue
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Brain fog, memory problems, and impaired coordination
- Behavioral problems in children
The only treatment for celiac disease is to strictly adhere to a 100% gluten-free diet for life. Following a gluten-free diet can prevent almost all complications caused by this condition.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)
If you have tested negative for celiac disease, yet are experiencing symptoms that seem related to gluten (especially gastrointestinal problems or IBS), you may have a sensitivity to gluten known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity is a less-known disorder, and more difficult to diagnose. It is estimated that NCGS affects as many as 20 million Americans.
Often sufferers go for many years before diagnosis. This is because there is no observed damage to the intestinal lining, as compared to those suffering from celiac disease. Because the range of symptoms associated with gluten intolerance is so broad and non-specific (and similar to the causes of any number of conditions), many patients and doctors do not suspect gluten to be the culprit. Often, people are misdiagnosed with everything from depression and anxiety to irritable bowel syndrome, and take over-the-counter medications for short-lived relief. This progresses to prescribed medicines that relieve the symptoms and mask the problem (fostering a reliance on medication). All the while, they suffer the dangerous side effects of unnecessary pharmaceutical drugs when the only culprit is gluten.
Enter the Elimination Diet
The single best way to test for gluten sensitivity involves going on an elimination diet to remove gluten (and other foods) from the diet completely. Each food is then reintroduced while monitoring how your body responds. The great thing about an elimination diet is that it also helps you discover which other foods may be the real culprit, if not gluten.
A gluten intolerance may also be mistaken for a wheat allergy. Those with a wheat allergy experience an allergic reaction after eating wheat, with symptoms that include:
- Skin reactions (hives, itchiness)
- Swelling in the mouth and throat
- Difficulty breathing
- Nasal congestion
- Watery eyes
- Abdominal pain/distention
A wheat allergy usually develops during infancy, with most people outgrowing it by age 3 to 5. But it can also be a lifelong disorder.
In people with a very severe wheat allergy, eating wheat can cause a life-threatening reaction called anaphylaxis, where the throat swells, breathing becomes difficult, skin turns pale or blue, and dizziness or fainting can occur. If you are at risk of anaphylaxis, wearing a medical identification bracelet that describes the allergy and informs others what to do in case of emergency care is very strongly recommended.