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What is Gluten, & Should You Eliminate It From Your Diet?

*Disclaimer: I am not a doctor, and this discussion is for informational purposes only. Please do your own research, and consult with your healthcare professional before making any changes to your diet.

In recent years, the gluten-free diet has become very popular. Proponents claim that eliminating gluten from your diet can help with gastrointestinal problems such as bloating, diarrhea, constipation, and abdominal pain.

It is also said that cutting out gluten can alleviate other symptoms not related to the gut, such as brain fog, joint pain, headaches, fatigue, and depression.

It’s important to note that there are many types of foods that can cause reactions in the body, and gluten may or may not be the culprit. There are also many diseases and conditions that could mimic a sensitivity to gluten.

Having said that, gluten can absolutely cause serious problems for some people! There are those who are gluten-intolerant (non-celiac gluten sensitivity). They feel better when they keep gluten at a minimum in their diet, but they can tolerate small amounts once in a while.

Those with celiac disease, however, need to abstain from all gluten, for the rest of their lives. This is because celiac is an autoimmune disorder, and gluten causes actual physical damage to the intestines.

Let’s talk about what gluten is, the problems it can cause, and whether you should eliminate it from your diet.

What is gluten?

For all the bakers out there, gluten is known as the substance that gives elasticity to the dough. It acts as a sort of glue that holds everything together and gives baked products that wonderful chewy, soft texture.

Gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains that the plant uses to store nutrients. In medicine and biology, “gluten” is actually an umbrella term used for the combination of these proteins, called glutelin and prolamin.

There are 3 types of grains that contain gluten: wheat, barley, and rye (or any grains related to these, such as spelt, Kamut, einkorn, or emmer).

Oats, while they don’t contain gluten, have a similar protein called avenin. Most people sensitive to gluten can eat oats with no issues. Also, most celiacs can tolerate oats. However, there are some who have a reaction to them, due to the protein similarity.

Is gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and wheat allergy the same thing?

Woman sitting on bed with a stomach ache, holding belly

You have probably heard the terms “gluten sensitivity” and “celiac“, and wondered if they are the same thing. Although both have to do with problems that arise from eating gluten, they are different.

On the other hand, some people have a wheat allergy, which is entirely different.

Let’s take a look at what the symptoms are, and then discuss the differences between these conditions.

Symptoms

These symptoms are common for either gluten sensitivity or celiac. Some, or all of these, can be experienced for several hours or days after consuming gluten:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Anemia
  • Anxiety
  • Bloating/gas
  • Brain Fog
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea/constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Joint pain
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Skin rash

Gluten sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity (aka “gluten intolerance” or “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”) are all terms meaning the same thing. A person has symptoms after eating foods containing gluten, but their test for celiac came back negative. Does this mean they don’t have a problem with gluten? Not necessarily.

Unfortunately, there aren’t any reliable tests for gluten sensitivity, as there are for celiac. However, if celiac has been ruled out, and there aren’t any other diseases or conditions that could be causing the symptoms, it might be gluten sensitivity. It’s basically a process of elimination to figure it out.

In this case, you could try a gluten-free diet for a period of time, to see if it helps. If the symptoms disappear after cutting out gluten, you may have found the problem. You could then try re-introducing foods containing gluten into your diet, and see if the symptoms return. If they do, this is a good indication that you will probably feel better cutting gluten out entirely.

Some people with gluten sensitivity find that they are able to tolerate small amounts of gluten every once in a while. This is not the case with celiac disease, however.

For celiacs, gluten consumption causes an immune response in the small intestine. Over time, this abnormal reaction damages the lining of the small intestine. This in turn can lead to all sorts of health problems throughout the body.

Celiac disease

The symptoms of celiac disease can be similar to those of gluten sensitivity. However, it is a much different condition. According to The Celiac Disease Foundation, it “is a serious autoimmune disease that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine”.

Celiac is hereditary, and having a close family member with the disease predisposes a person to develop it at some point in their life. Symptoms can begin at any age, as young as infancy, at any time in childhood, or as an adult.

For celiacs, gluten consumption causes an immune response in the small intestine. The body sees it as an “invader”, and launches an attack every time it encounters gluten. Over time, this abnormal immune reaction damages the lining of the small intestine.

To better understand the damage, it helps to visualize the anatomy of the small intestinal lining.

Normally, the lining of the small intestine is covered with small fingerlike projections called villi. Take a look at this illustration from the Mayo Clinic to see what they look like. In the body of a celiac who eats gluten, these villi get worn down and become smooth from the constant attacks of the immune response.

Consequences of intestinal damage

If celiac is left untreated, it can lead to very serious health consequences. The longer a person with celiac continues to eat gluten, the more damage it does to the small intestines. This in turn can lead to all sorts of health problems throughout the body.

When the villi of the intestinal lining become worn down and smooth, the body is not able to properly absorb vitamins and minerals from food (malabsorption). This can lead to malnutrition even when a person is eating enough food.

Malnutrition can lead to these, and many other, conditions:

  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Vitamin B-12 or folate deficiency anemia
  • Osteoporosis

Another consequence of celiac intestinal damage, if left untreated long-term, is certain types of cancers, including:

  • Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma
  • Adenocarcinoma of the small intestine
  • Esophageal carcinoma

Important to note

Celiacs tend to also have other autoimmune disorders and/or other conditions. Celiac doesn’t cause these other illnesses, but they seem to occur frequently alongside celiac disease. These include:

  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Multiple sclerosis
  • Crohn’s disease
  • Sjogren’s syndrome
  • And others

So if you know that you have celiac, keep in mind that other illnesses could show up, as well. It’s always a good idea to know your body, and if you have been following a gluten-free diet but are still having strange symptoms, you might have other conditions going on. Be sure to bring this up with your doctor! They may want to test you for some of these other disorders.

Treatment for celiac

Unfortunately, there is presently no cure for celiac disease, and there aren’t any medicines to stop the damage that gluten causes. Thankfully, though, there is a treatment that works, which is lifelong abstinence from all foods containing gluten.

Here is an article from Mayo Clinic that also discusses diagnosis, foods/products to avoid, and follow-up care.

Wheat allergy

So far we’ve discussed gluten sensitivity and celiac. A wheat allergy, however, is different than either of these. Although there can be gastrointestinal distress, the symptoms are usually quite different, and in some cases can be life-threatening (anaphylaxis).

Symptoms show up often within minutes or hours of eating something containing wheat, or in some cases up to 48 hours later. Some people are so sensitive that even inhaling dust from wheat flour can set off a reaction.

Symptoms

  • Hives/skin rash
  • Nausea/vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea
  • Stuffy/runny nose, sneezing
  • Headache
  • Asthma
  • Anaphylaxis (less common, but can be deadly)

Diagnosis

An allergy specialist will use both a skin prick and a blood test to diagnose a wheat allergy. There are 4 types of protein in wheat that could cause an allergic reaction: albumin, gliadin, globulin, or gluten.

In addition to testing for wheat allergy, the doctor will likely also test for celiac. This is because it is possible to have an allergy to wheat only, but there could also be an overlapping celiac diagnosis, as well.

Studies have shown that around 0.4% of children have an allergy to wheat. It’s estimated that about 29% of those will grow out of it by age 4, 56% by age 8, and 65% by age 12. So it appears that a good percentage of children with a wheat allergy will in time be able to eat wheat products with no reaction. But there are still many who will have to refrain from ingesting wheat throughout life.

It is rare for a wheat allergy to develop suddenly in adults with no previous history of it. When it does, however, it can be a life-threatening event, causing a severe and immediate anaphylactic response.

wheat, gluten, allergy,
Say no to gluten, and say yes to feeling well!

Finding out that you have celiac can be very upsetting! When I was diagnosed over 20 years ago, celiac wasn’t very well known to the general public. Nowadays, it’s a lot easier to eat out at restaurants and social gatherings, but back then it was really difficult.

I became very sad and depressed because I didn’t know what to eat. It took me a while to figure things out, but I did eventually get back to enjoying food again. Once I learned how to replace the foods I was used to with delicious gluten-free options, I developed a whole new way of cooking and eating.

Stay tuned for a future series of articles about the long road I’ve traveled on my gluten-free journey! It can be really hard to completely change the way you eat, and even harder to do it alone. I plan to share all the tips and tricks I’ve learned, to help you make your own road a little less bumpy.

Summary

The topic of food intolerances and allergies can be confusing. Nowadays, there’s a lot of talk about gluten, but many people don’t know exactly what it is, and why it affects certain people. In this post, we’ve learned that:

  • Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye
  • It creates an abnormal reaction in certain people, causing gastrointestinal and other symptoms throughout the body
  • There is a distinct difference between gluten sensitivity, celiac disease, and wheat allergy
  • In most cases (particularly celiac), the only treatment is lifelong complete abstinence from foods containing gluten (or wheat, in cases of a true wheat-only allergy)
  • Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, and consuming gluten over a long period of time causes not only distressing symptoms, but also damage to the lining of the small intestines

Feel free to share in the comments below what you learned, and any questions you may have.

Please also let me know what topics you’d like me to cover in future posts about gluten-free eating. I have a lot of experience to share, and I want to help you to make the switch to gluten-free as easy as possible!

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