Having intestinal issues after consuming a wheat product? Feel better with a gluten-free diet? Could it be that you are sensitive to gluten? With the increased prevalence of food allergies, gluten has been placed on the chopping block for many. However, whether or not they are intolerant or experiencing gluten sensitivity is still very much up for debate. Even though these terms may seem interchangeable, there are key differences between them. While gluten is integral to foods like bread, baked goods, cereal, pasta, and beer, a significant part of the population cannot consume it. Discover the meaning of gluten sensitivity, its symptoms, and whether or not you may have it.
What is gluten sensitivity?
Before we can dive into the many shades of gluten intolerance, let’s take a closer look at gluten. Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in wheat, rye, or barley. As food processing practices have expanded, the presence of this protein in gluten-free foods due to cross-contamination has increased because many food production plants deal with gluten-containing foods. Often designated as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), the term describes a condition in which people cannot digest this protein. When gluten is consumed, it can trigger intestinal and extraintestinal symptoms.
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity
Gluten sensitivity can manifest itself in many ways throughout the body, including in and out of the digestive system. Common symptoms¹ include:
- Abdominal pain
- Brain fog
- Joint pain
- Numbness in legs, arms, or fingers
- Skin rashes
While gluten sensitivity can cause discomfort, it is not as serious as celiac disease. Furthermore, it does not lead to increased gut permeability, otherwise known as leaky gut, which can cause long-term health issues. Although it does share symptoms with celiac disease, they should not be confused for one another by any means. As more research and studies are conducted in this area, different methods for managing gluten sensitivity are being explored, including gluten reduction and gluten avoidance².
How is this different from celiac disease?
Around 1% of the world’s population has been formally diagnosed with celiac disease. Individuals with this condition must avoid gluten not only because of the symptoms and discomfort it brings but also because it can damage their intestines. Due to their inability to digest this protein, gluten can trigger increased gut permeability³ and immune responses. These responses can eventually damage the lining of the intestines, which can result in malabsorption⁴ of nutrients as time goes on. Nonetheless, it is important to note that it can be difficult to diagnose celiac disease as it requires withdrawals from gluten as well as various placebo tests.
Is it gluten sensitivity or something else?
Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease aren’t the only health conditions that may be at fault for your digestive discomfort.
- A wheat allergy is another possible cause, and some notable symptoms of this food allergy include hives, swelling, and difficulty breathing.
- Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is an intestinal condition that also causes digestive issues and pain but has other triggers besides gluten-containing foods. Research shows that almost a quarter⁵ of adults have IBS.
- Wheat contains FODMAPS (fermentable oligo-, di-, and mono-saccharides and polyols), which are a known cause of IBS. Some studies suggest that FODMAPS rather than gluten are the components in wheat that may cause more digestive issues.
If you want to find out whether you have gluten sensitivity, we recommend visiting your physician to conduct the appropriate tests for a formal diagnosis.
- “What Is Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?” Beyond Celiac, Beyond Celiac, 18 Mar. 2021, www.beyondceliac.org/celiac-disease/non-celiac-gluten-sensitivity/what-is-it/.
- Barbaro, Maria Raffaella, et al. “Recent Advances in Understanding Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity.” F1000Research, F1000 Research Limited, 11 Oct. 2018, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6182669/.
- Caio, Giacomo, et al. “Celiac Disease: A Comprehensive Current Review.” BMC Medicine, BioMed Central, 23 July 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6647104/.
- “Celiac Disease.” Mayo Clinic, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, 10 Aug. 2021, www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/celiac-disease/symptoms-causes/syc-20352220.
- “Irritable Bowel Syndrome.” American College of Gastroenterology, Gi.org, 21 Sept. 2021, gi.org/topics/irritable-bowel-syndrome/.
Ashuni Pérez is a writer in the culinary, as well as health and wellness industries. With a background in teaching and digital media, she loves to learn and help others discover more about their food, where it comes from, and how best to prepare it. A foodie through and through, she is always searching for new recipes and the freshest ingredients.