WHAT IS GLUTEN SENSITIVITY?
Gluten sensitivity, also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), often causes symptoms similar to celiac disease but absent an autoimmune response (without any damage to the lining of the gut).
If you think you have a gluten sensitivity, it is important to rule out celiac disease. Talk with your doctor about potentially getting tested for celiac disease.
The drawback with testing is that you must eat gluten for an extended period of time for the tests to be accurate. Many people are unable to tolerate this, especially if they’ve been gluten free for a while.
WHAT IS CELIAC DISEASE?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder—it is NOT an allergy or food intolerance. When a person with celiac disease ingests gluten (a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye), that person’s immune system attacks their small intestine.
The small intestine is lined with small fingerlike projections called villi which help the human body absorb nutrients. This autoimmune response damages the villi.
Imagine a healthy small intestine looks like a shag carpet, whereas a small intestine damaged by celiac disease and gluten ingestion looks like a flat floor. The result is that the celiac individual cannot readily absorb nutrients.
Celiac disease is hereditary and it can manifest at any age. If a first degree family member has the condition (such as a sibling, parent, or child) then your chances of having it increase to 1 in 10.
It is currently estimated that 1 in 100 people worldwide have celiac disease. It is also estimated that only about 1/4 have been diagnosed.
Symptoms for gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are the same. That said, they vary widely from individual to individual.
They can be almost non-existent to very severe and can be singular or multiple in nature. There are over 200 known symptoms which is why so many people are undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Some symptoms include:
- Diarrhea, gas, constipation
- Stomach pain, cramping, bloating
- Lactose intolerance
- Vitamin B12, iron, folic acid deficiency
- Brain fog after eating
- Joint pain
- Hormone imbalance (delayed puberty, PMS, PCOS, etc.)
- Weight loss
- Problems with your teeth
- Mouth ulcers
- Skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
- Liver problems
- Pancreatic problems
- Gall bladder problems
- Mood issues (depression, anxiety, ADHD)
- Repeated miscarriages
- Neurological problems such as migraine, dementia, ataxia (loss of coordination or poor balance), epileptic seizures, and peripheral neuropathy (numbness and tingling in the hands and feet)
- Gastrointestinal cancer
- Diagnosis of chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia (perhaps the doctor can’t quite figure out what the issue is, so applies a broad diagnosis)
- Diagnosis of another autoimmune disease
DO I HAVE A GLUTEN SENSITIVITY?
The easiest and most reliable way to see if you have a gluten sensitivity is an elimination diet. Eat 100% gluten free for several weeks and then sit down and have a meal with a generous portion of bread or pasta.
If you have a gluten sensitivity, it will be obvious—the difference in how you feel will be significant. So if you feel better those few weeks when you aren’t eating gluten, and then feel worse when you eat it again, you have a gluten sensitivity.
This will NOT tell you if you have celiac disease. A celiac disease diagnosis requires medical testing. As I mentioned earlier, a lot of people are unable to tolerate the current testing requirements and subsequently have no choice but to self-diagnose as celiac.
The only treatment is to follow a gluten free diet for life. If you’re simply gluten sensitive, trace amounts of gluten (usually encountered via cross-contamination) probably won’t be an issue for you. If you’re celiac, you must avoid ALL gluten, even trace amounts.