Keeping a food diary and logging your reactions to certain foods could help you identify symptoms of gluten intolerance. You may have noticed that there is growing popularity when it comes to gluten-free diets. More and more gluten-free products are available today, to the point where many grocery stores even have a dedicated ‘gluten-free’ aisle.
If it seems like gluten intolerance and Celiac disease are on the rise, one culprit might be the diversification of wheat varieties. A study conducted in Munich revealed that there are more immunoreactive proteins in modern wheat varieties compared to samples taken from wheat as far back as 1891, and that could be contributing to the rising number of individuals who experience adverse reactions to food products containing gluten.
It’s estimated that approximately 1% of the population suffers from Celiac disease or wheat allergy, but that number is just an estimate. It can be difficult to determine an exact count since so many people choose to cut gluten or wheat from their diet for ‘health reasons’ despite having little to no reaction to gluten, as well as the many people who have eliminated gluten but have not been tested for Celiac disease.
Gluten intolerance can be a difficult topic to navigate. There are certain signs and symptoms of gluten intolerance to watch out for, but there is a lot of conflicting information out there as well as confusion around the term ‘gluten intolerance’.
Let’s take a look at some of the distinguishing factors between Celiac disease and gluten intolerance, as well as some of the signs and symptoms of gluten intolerance.
Intolerant, Sensitive, or Allergic?
The term ‘gluten intolerance’ gets tossed around a lot and is used interchangeably to refer to both wheat allergies and the symptoms that are associated with gluten sensitivity. However, this is not entirely accurate. When a medical professional refers to someone as gluten intolerant, generally speaking, they are referring to someone who has a confirmed case of Celiac disease (which differs from an allergy to wheat) or someone with a non-celiac gluten sensitivity. In this case, being ‘sensitive’ to gluten does not equate to Celiac disease.
A CircleDNA test can reveal a variety of genetic risk factors, including whether or not you have a high or low risk of Celiac disease, based on your DNA.
In order for a case of Celiac disease to be confirmed, however, a pathologist will test either a blood sample or a small piece of intestine for antibodies indicating an immune response to gluten. For cases of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, no such antibodies are present. Thus, gluten sensitivity is largely self-diagnosed, usually by following an elimination diet to see if symptoms are relieved in the absence of gluten.
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity and Celiac disease are strikingly similar but they are generally much milder in someone who has a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, appear later, and are often short-lived.
In addition, gluten sensitivity can exist on a spectrum, where some people can tolerate small amounts of gluten. For people living with Celiac disease, the only way to find relief is to avoid gluten altogether.
Common Signs of Gluten Sensitivity
So what’s the difference between a gluten sensitivity reaction and a Celiac reaction? The major difference here is the length and severity of the reactions, as well as your body’s response time.
For people who have a sensitivity to gluten, symptoms can take anywhere from several hours to a full day to present, and typically last up to a few hours. Typical gastrointestinal symptoms of gluten sensitivity include:
- Stomach cramps
- Diarrhea or constipation
While these symptoms of gluten intolerance are certainly uncomfortable, most cases of NCGS don’t result in debilitating symptoms and there doesn’t seem to be any long-term damage caused to the digestive tract by continuing to eat foods that contain gluten.
On the other hand, your body’s response to gluten if you have Celiac disease comes on rather quickly and the symptoms are much more severe and can have long-lasting consequences if ignored. In addition to the GI symptoms associated with NCGS, skin rashes, mouth ulcers and even seizures have been reported in people who have Celiac disease.
Celiac Disease, Explained
Celiac disease is a very serious, lifelong autoimmune disorder. It can happen to anyone, regardless of age, race or gender, and symptoms can present themselves at any stage of life. Symptoms of Celiac disease are triggered by the immune system when gluten, a protein present in wheat, barley, and rye, are consumed and can include stomach pains, bloating, gas, diarrhea or constipation, nausea or vomiting. Additionally, non-GI-related symptoms may also be present including anemia, depression, fatigue, brain fog, headache, joint pain, skin rashes, mouth ulcers, and, in extreme cases, seizures.
Cases of Celiac disease are confirmed by either a blood sample or by an intestinal biopsy, where a pathologist looks for antibodies that can confirm a diagnosis.
Over time, if someone with Celiac disease is once exposed to gluten damage can be done to the small intestine, inhibiting its ability to absorb nutrients that can, in turn, lead to nutritional deficiency.
There is no cure for Celiac disease. The only way to control its symptoms is to permanently eliminate gluten from your diet.
FODMAPS and Gluten Sensitivity
Recently, some studies have emerged that suggest that the relief of symptoms experienced by people with NCGS may not be due to the absence of gluten at all, but are instead caused by the inadvertent elimination of a whole other group of carbohydrates that are difficult to digest called FODMAPs – fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols.
FODMAPs are small-chain carbohydrates that are present in a number of foods, including wheat and barley but are also present in fruits, vegetables, teas, sweeteners, nuts, dairy products, and beans.
FODMAPs are difficult to digest. Instead of moving swiftly through your digestive tract, they tend to collect at the far end of the intestine, where they absorb water and ferment, leading to symptoms linked to IBS and other GI disorders, which are nearly identical to those of gluten sensitivity. Just like anything else, some people have a harder time digesting FODMAPs than others.
This would explain the many people who lack markers for Celiac disease and antibodies that would confirm a wheat allergy but still find relief from symptoms after eliminating foods that contain gluten.
Living with Gluten Intolerance
Fortunately, with gluten intolerance awareness at an all-time high, there are no shortages of gluten-free alternatives to your favorite foods, and today, transitioning into a gluten-free diet is easier than ever. Transitioning to a gluten-free diet will certainly help alleviate symptoms of gluten intolerance. However, simply removing gluten from your diet without following up with a doctor is not recommended.
For one thing, your doctor will want to determine if your reactions are being caused by Celiac disease, intolerance, sensitivity or an allergy. In order to test for all of these, gluten needs to be in your system, so do not eliminate gluten until after you have been tested.
If a Celiac test comes back negative, the next thing your doctor will want to do is have you follow an elimination diet and monitor the results. It’s possible that gluten is not the real culprit and, by the process of elimination, your doctor or dietician may be able to find the real source of your symptoms.
It’s important to remember that gluten intolerance can’t be confirmed or ruled out with one simple test. That being said, there are a number of factors that might indicate you are at a higher risk of gluten intolerance including genetic factors. Rather than trying to figure out if you have Celiac disease or gluten intolerance by yourself, you must involve medical health professionals to get a proper diagnosis.
“Definition & Facts for Celiac Disease | NIDDK.” National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/celiac-disease/definition-facts. Accessed 5 January 2022.
Mehmet, Sam. “Study reveals why wheat and gluten intolerance is becoming more common.” New Food magazine, 12 August 2020, https://www.newfoodmagazine.com/news/115778/study-reveals-why-wheat-and-gluten-intolerance-is-becoming-more-common/. Accessed 5 January 2022.
“The Difference Between Celiac Disease, Gluten Intolerance, and Wheat Allergy – Closing the Gap.” Closing the Gap Healthcare, 21 June 2018, https://www.closingthegap.ca/the-difference-between-celiac-disease-gluten-intolerance-and-wheat-allergy/. Accessed 5 January 2022.
“What’s Really Behind “Gluten Sensitivity”. Science, 23 May 2018, https://www.science.org/content/article/what-s-really-behind-gluten-sensitivity. Accessed 5 January 2022.