If you follow my blog much, you know that I believe myself to be “gluten sensitive”; that is, I am not Celiac or allergic to wheat, but I feel way better when I avoid wheat and gluten products. I’ve done quite a bit of research on ways to avoid gluten and still have a rich and varied diet. And yes, I do occasionally eat that freshly made sourdough bread or a bite of doughnut followed by digestive enzymes and probiotics which definitely improve my ability to process wheat/gluten products.
But, despite my own and many others’ personal experiences, there is still a lot of skepticism about whether gluten intolerance is a “real thing”. So today, instead of talking about gluten substitutes, we’re going to look at Gluten Intolerance itself and see what it is, what it isn’t, and what the science says.
WARNING: Science Content!
What is Gluten?
Gluten is a stretchy protein in wheat, rye and other grains; it’s especially prevalent in processed food products because it’s a great binding agent. So that means it’s really hard to completely avoid contact with gluten. But some people have to try to do this.
Who Shouldn’t Eat Gluten?
Roughly 1% of the population has Celiac disease and eating gluten triggers an intestine-damaging immune system response in them. Celiacs should definitely not eat anything with gluten, although it is notoriously difficult to actually be diagnosed as Celiac, there are tests that can confirm it and if you think it’s possible that you are Celiac (especially take note is a family history, as it tends to be genetic), you should talk with your doctor about these tests.
Another segment of the population are allergic to wheat. Just like if they were Celiac, eating foods with gluten can lead to inflammation of the small intestines and symptoms like abdominal pain, unusual bowel movements, foggy thinking, chronic headache, joint pain, skin rashes and chronic fatigue. Wheat allergies can also be confirmed with established tests.
However, there are many people who experience some or all of the above symptoms when they eat wheat or gluten, but they don’t test positive for either celiac disease or wheat allergies. But since they feel better not eating gluten,this condition is known as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS).
Gluten-free products are big business now: 30 percent of people want to eat less gluten and gluten-free product sales are estimated to reach $US15 billion by 2016.
But Couldn’t it be Something Else?
NCGS is still somewhat controversial as absolute tests that confirm or rule out the condition haven’t been developed, beyond food elimination. Dr. Alessio Fasano, director of the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment at Massachusetts General Hospital and other medical professionals say they’re now certain it’s a legitimate phenomenon, but it may not be named accurately. “It’s probably a sensitivity to more than one ingredient in grains, so things besides just gluten are triggering the immune response,” he says.
In one double-blind study, Fasano found that half of the study participants claiming gluten sensitivity did not have any symptoms when secretly fed gluten. This would seem to indicate that they really are sensitive to something in grain—just maybe not gluten. For these people, avoiding gluten helps them steer clear of other problematic grain proteins.
Fasano would like to develop a biomarker test for NCGS, but it could be that wheat-related sensitivities overlap with irritable bowel syndrome or other related gut issues, he says. If that’s the case, a simple test may not be possible.
While avoiding gluten may alleviate some people’s symptoms, it’s best not to assume that you have NCGS until you have also seen a doctor and ruled out other issues, as the the symptoms of NCGS mirror those of many other diseases and conditions.
Another study suspects that the true culprit in NCGS could be a sugar chain called fructans rather than gluten. Both are found in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. 59 non-celiacs currently on a gluten-free diet were asked to eat special cereal bars. One type contained gluten, another fructans, and the third had neither. Each person ate one bar a day for a week, took a week’s break and then tried the next bar. They weren’t told which bar was which.
The study results showed the fructans bar triggered bloating 15 percent more than the control bar, and gastrointestinal symptoms 13 percent more. However, the gluten bar was no different from the control bar which had no glutens and no fructans.
If fructans are actually the cause of NCGS symptoms, this could open up foods that are low in fructans but high in gluten, like soy sauce, and help in developing more accurate “fructan-free” foods.
I for one, am just glad that I’ve found lifestyle changes that relieve my own symptoms (and I have been tested for all sorts of other things!) and am pleased at the ever-expanding array of gluten free products. If foods can be refined to eliminate fructans but not gluten, I would certainly be willing to try them as well.
Until then, I plan to remain mostly gluten free! And to keep on taking probiotics for digestive health, and Paula’s Purple Rice of course :).
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