What is Gluten Sensitivity?


If you have found that you feel ill when you eat foods with gluten, but have not tested positive for celiac disease, you might be struggling with gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity is not a wheat allergy. Instead it is often referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and it is much more common than you might think.

Gluten Intolerance vs. Celiac Disease

You have likely seen or heard many people saying they are reducing their gluten or giving it up altogether. In some cases, people actually have wheat allergies or an autoimmune condition called celiac disease where gluten makes them ill.
“When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.” Celiac Disease Foundation
Others test negative for celiac disease, but notice an improvement in symptoms when gluten is eliminated. This is non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or NCGS. It is more common, but less easily diagnosed.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a type of protein that is found in a variety of grains. Many people think of wheat as being the main source of gluten, but it can also be found in rye and barley. It is important to note that although gluten isn’t naturally occurring in other grains, they may become cross-contaminated due to food processing techniques.
The gluten protein is made up of two main proteins, glutenin and gliadin. Gliadin is what causes negative health effects. (Source) Gluten gives bread its chewy texture, allows it to rise, and makes dough elastic.

How does gluten sensitivity happen?

There are a lot of conflicting studies around gluten sensitivity. Anything from current diet, genetic predisposition, hormonal balance, mold exposure, the presence of leaky gut or an imbalance in the gut microbiome could be contributors. One study suggested that the negative symptoms are caused by the intestinal barrier allowing partially digested gluten to get out of the gut and affect immune cells. (Source)
Some scientists say that fructans or FODMAPS are the culprit rather than gluten.
I personally became gluten intolerant after living in houses that were contaminated with toxic mold. It just so happens that the gene for mold sensitivity sits next to the gene for gluten sensitivity. Eventually, my body couldn’t handle the toxic overload from the mold exposures and it triggered my genetic weakness to gluten. That’s when I started having severe gluten reactions.
The good news is, I have healed my gut enough now and I can actually eat some very specific types of gluten without any reaction. My body doesn’t react to organic, non-GMO, undenatured wheat from Italy but I will still react to other types of organic wheat. Our food sources have been extremely denatured, especially in the US, and it can create a multitude of digestive and autoimmune issues.

How to Know You Have a Sensitivity

When you have an intolerance to gluten, your symptoms can range from mild discomfort and abdominal pain to more severe symptoms that are similar to celiac. Here are some common symptoms that might be pointing to a gluten sensitivity:

  • Digestive symptoms such as abdominal cramping, bloating, diarrhea, nausea or constipation
  • Fatigue, chronic or persistent feelings of tiredness
  • Regular headaches (Source)
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Mood changes like depression or anxiety (Source)
  • Iron-deficiency anemia due to poor absorption of nutrients
  • Skin problems, including a red “gluten-intolerance” rash, psoriasis, alopecia and eczema (Source)

To determine if you have a gluten sensitivity, you can do an experiment at home to help you begin to figure out what’s going on.

  1. Go gluten free. Eliminate gluten for an extended period of time, then reintroduce it. Keep a food and symptom diary during this time so you don’t have to rely on your memory. If your symptoms lessen with the elimination of gluten, then reappear when it is reintroduced, you have a clue. If your symptoms are severe when you reintroduce gluten, you may need to get tested for celiac. FYI, a gluten reaction can last for 3-6 months after one exposure so you may need to eliminate gluten completely for awhile.
  2. Try an elimination diet. We use an elimination type of food plan as one part of our weight loss program because it helps to drastically reduce inflammation and encourage weight loss too. Eliminating sugar and dairy as well as gluten, can help us to hone in on the specific foods that we may be reacting to. We figure this out by removing them from the diet for at least 4 weeks and then reintroducing them one at a time. My clients tell me that when they reintroduce a food that their body doesn’t like, they feel the bloating and other symptoms immediately. The good news is, your body will tell you what it likes and what it doesn’t like once it’s had a chance to reduce deep cellular inflammation

Tips for Eating Without Gluten

Here’s a little guidance on how to eat without gluten if you have a gluten intolerance, or if you want to eliminate gluten to help you figure it out.

Foods With Gluten

Before discussing what you CAN eat when you have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity, it helps to understand exactly what foods contain gluten. Gluten is found in the grains wheat, rye and barley.
Items such as couscous, bulgur, semolina, triticale, spelt, kamut, hydrolyzed wheat protein, durum, farro, atta, and farina that are variations of these grains are also included.
Many majority of cold cuts, commercial broth and bullion, malt, soups, salad dressings, sauces, condiments, processed cheese, and other processed foods will also contain gluten. Look for the gluten free label on packing to help you eliminate gluten containing foods.  Some food items you need to examine the nutrition labels of closely are:

  • Condiments and salad dressings
  • Canned beans
  • Processed meat like hot dogs or sausage
  • Non-dairy creamer
  • Egg substitutes
  • Granola and trail mix
  • Energy bars
  • Ice cream
  • Fruit filling and pudding
  • Cereals and breads

Where Could Gluten Be Hiding?

Gluten can often be hiding in products you wouldn’t suspect. I use a Nima Sensor which is a device that  checks for gluten contamination in spices, condiments and for when I eat out in restaurants. For some people, even a little bit of hidden gluten can create major health problems and the Nima Sensor helps to identify if a food contains any gluten. Here are some common items to look for on nutrition labels that contain gluten:

  • Hydrolyzed malt extract
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Phytosphingosine extract
  • Amino peptide complex
  • Secale cereale
  • Fermented grain extract
  • Hordeum distichon
  • Hordeum vulgare
  • Hydrolysate
  • Maltodextrin
  • Brown rice syrup
  • Modified food starch
  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
  • Hydrolyzed soy protein
  • Caramel color

Eat This Instead

To get an idea for what to eat while you’re gluten free, you can check out diets such as the paleo diet and the Mediterranean diet. If you include plenty of healthy fats like organic cold-pressed olive oil, organic fibrous veggies like sweet potatoes, non-processed organic meats and fruits, you’ll have a well-rounded, nutrient-dense diet.
If you need some recipe substitution ideas, check out my gluten-free recipe hacks here!