Digestion, Disease, Immune System

Understanding Gluten Intolerance

You may have noticed how many grocery products are now labeled “gluten free,” as food producers exploit consumers’ concerns about gluten intolerance. But what is gluten intolerance, and how big a problem is it?

Gluten intolerance is often confused with Celiac disease, an inherited condition that can cause serious gastrointestinal and immunological reactions when you eat gluten. Gluten is a large, complex protein in some grains, such as wheat, rye, oats and barley. When you have Celiac disease, your intestines are under attack from your own immune system, causing gastrointestinal pain. Celiac results in specific damage to the villi, a finger-like structure in the intestines, and the ultimate diagnostic tool for this kind of gluten reaction is a biopsy of the intestines, revealing the damage. Celiac disease results in malnourishment, and can ultimately lead to the development of autommune illness.

Gluten intolerance is a much less acute form of gastrointestinal reaction to gluten, and it is much more common than true Celiac disease.  There is no test for gluten intolerance, but tests can be performed for IgA and IgG reactions to gluten proteins. Most gluten insensitive people would not test positive for Celiac disease, so doctors sometimes refer to patients as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitive (NCGS).

Until recently, scientists believed some people were genetically predisposed to gluten intolerance but develop symptoms only after the intestinal wall is damaged, usually later in life. Newer research indicates it is not just the immune system that is reacting in these NCGS people; there can also be damage to the liver, heart, joints, and even the brain.

If you are gluten sensitive, you may have symptoms similar to those experienced by patients with Celiac disease. These include diarrhea, alternating diarrhea and constipation, gas, bloating, gut pain and cramps. You may also suffer headaches, ulcers in the mouth, malnutrition, anemia, chronic fatigue, brain fog, muscle pain and skin problems, among others.

Gluten intolerance can also cause the intestinal wall to leak, allowing intestinal particles to pass into the bloodstream. This creates an allergic reaction and over-stimulation of the immune system. This can cause you to react to other, non-gluten foods, potentially resulting in problems such as chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, asthma, eczema, autism, depression and learning difficulties.