Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. It is also found in some processed foods. Over the last decade or so, people have become increasingly aware of gluten as they have identified it as the cause of their discomforts. But what does gluten actually do to your body?
If you don't have celiac disease and you're not sensitive to gluten, it's not harmful. But more and more people are making the connection that when they eat gluten, they feel terrible. In extreme cases, people have resolved health issues that they had been dealing with for decades just by giving up gluten. Others take a break from gluten for a while and nothing changes.
So, what does gluten actually do in your body?
There's a difference between what happens in the case of celiac disease and in non-celiac gluten sensitivity. We'll go through both.
Celiac Disease and Gluten
When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it triggers an immune response in the small intestine. This can lead to damage of the lining of the intestine over time, which can make nutrients difficult for your body to absorb. A healthy small intestine is lined with villi, tiny finger-like structures that absorb nutrients. In untreated celiac disease, with repeated gluten exposure, these villi will appear flattened.
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In the short-term, you might experience abdominal discomfort and digestive distress. In the long term, you're up against malnutrition, diarrhea, and other symptoms.
Around 1% of the US population (which amounts to over 3 million people) is diagnosed with celiac disease, which is a chronic illness that damages the small intestine over time. It is estimated that 6% of the population (over 19 million people) are gluten-sensitive, which means they have an unpleasant reaction to gluten but it does not meet the criteria to be considered celiac disease. Other estimates are much higher.
What Gluten Does if You're Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitive
Celiac disease involves the small intestine. What happens when gluten reactions involve other areas of the body? If gluten makes you feel sick in other ways, you might be dealing with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Gluten can also cause an inflammatory response in the gut, which can lead to abdominal pain and other symptoms. In some people, gluten can also cause an immune reaction in the brain, which can lead to neurological problems.
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity may include any combination of:
- Digestive issues (bloating, diarrhea, and constipation)
- Brain fog
- Joint discomfort
- Skin rashes or reactions
- Numbness in extremities
- Flu-like symptoms
If you experience any of these when eating gluten-containing products, you might be dealing with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. You can discuss it with a doctor, but be aware that currently there's no reliable test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Your doctor may test for celiac and wheat allergies to rule them out before deciding next steps.
If you want to self-experiment, you can cut out all gluten sources for a few weeks to see whether your symptoms improve, then reintroduce it to see if your symptoms return. Work with a dietician to make sure you’re not missing out on important nutrients, and to make sure you’re eliminating all of the sneaky sources of gluten (like certain vinegars, sauces, even some salsas).
If you have any concerns about gluten or food intolerances, you can address your questions with your doctor.