Gluten allergy, gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity and wheat sensitivity are terms that are thrown around a lot by the media and people searching for answers to mysterious health symptoms. You may have heard it called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten intolerance, gluten allergy, wheat allergy, or a host of other combinations. Bottom line: they all mean the same thing. Gluten sensitivity is a real medical condition that affects between 10-16% of the population to some degree. It is not an allergy; it is not an autoimmune disease (celiac disease), but it can cause severe, uncomfortable and even debilitating symptoms, including any of the following:
- Adrenal imbalance
- Autoimmune diseases
- Behavioral changes (can include depression, irritability, failure to concentrate)
- Bloating, gas or distended abdomen
- Bone or joint pain
- Changes in appetite
- Chronic diarrhea
- Crohn’s Disease
- Fatigue and lethargy
- Hashimoto’s (chronic lymphocytic thyroiditis)
- Irritable bowel syndrome
- Lactose intolerance
- Mental fog
- Migraine headaches
- Multiple sclerosis
- Muscle cramps
- Nausea and/or vomiting
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Tingling or numbness in the hands and feet
- Ulcerative colitis
- Weight loss/gain
If you have been tested for celiac disease and also for wheat allergy and your test results are normal but you still have unexplained symptoms like those listed below, you may have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) or your symptoms may moderate on a gluten free diet for other reasons.
While there is currently no accepted medical test for gluten sensitivity, if you have suspicious symptoms, but have tested negative for celiac in blood work ordered by your doctor, you may indeed have NCGS. Removing gluten from your diet is a great way to see if your body functions better without gluten, indicating NCGS. It also may help to reduce inflammation in the body, for example (gluten free is part of the “anti-inflammatory diet“).
Gluten sensitivity is not an allergy to gluten, but rather, a condition where the body is unable to properly digest gluten. Recent studies have found that those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity also produce an abnormally high number of proteins that activate inflammation (the immune system’s first defense) and an abnormally low number of suppressor T cells that suppress the inflammation. The inflammatory response, like that brought against the flu virus, can cause fatigue and dizziness. Symptoms can range from quite mild to very serious, but unlike a true “allergy,” anaphylaxis leading to death will not occur.
A gluten free or even a low-gluten diet may help alleviate these symptoms, but the only way to know is to try a completely gluten free diet for a period of several weeks to see if you feel better. If you do, then your body is telling you your answer, whether a doctor gives you a diagnosis or not. Unlike with celiac disease, a person with gluten sensitivity may be able to eat small amounts of gluten without damaging their body — the symptoms suffered will ultimately dictate how much gluten is tolerated.