What is Gluten? 6 Facts About Gluten Sensitivity
For the past few years, “gluten” has been the ultimate buzzword in nutrition circles. Many folks have adopted a gluten-free diet in efforts to combat issues such as bloating, depression, acne, and other symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity and celiac disease.
But how many of us can actually define gluten? Is this substance found in pasta, breads, and even beer really that scary?
Let’s take a closer look…
1. What is gluten?
You don't have to be an angry bird to be confused about gluten. But yes, it does exist! And, although it is found in carbs, gluten is a protein! In fact, gluten is a major storage protein found in wheat including semolina, spelt, kamut, malt, couscous, bulgar, and triticale. It’s also found in related grains such as rye and barley. Gluten proteins are in the grain’s “endosperm,” a tissue within the plant seed that provides nutrition in the form of starch, oils, and proteins. Gluten gives grain products, such as breads and pasta and pizza, that fluffy, chewy texture.
Note that oats are naturally gluten-free, but many oat products can be contaminated with gluten depending on how they are processed and packaged. (Bob’s Red Mill Oats, however, are completely free of gluten. Way to go, Bob!)
It’s important to remember that gluten is often hidden in processed products. For example, you’ll find gluten used as a thickening agent in packaged foods, baked goods, and even condiments. So, if you’re looking to avoid gluten, it can be complicated.
2. What is gluten sensitivity?
Gluten sensitivity is triggered when the immune system reacts to the major protein in wheat, barley, or rye. People with gluten sensitivity can experience some of the same symptoms as those with celiac (like bloating, digestive tract discomfort, and diarrhea - read more below), but test negative for a wheat allergy.
But, while they may not be exposed to the same intestinal damage described below, they can still experience a wide range of discomfort depending on the severity of the sensitivity. And unfortunately, there is no intervention for gluten sensitivity other than to cut it out of your diet.
So, if you’re experiencing more than the occasional bloat or tummy ache, you may want to consult with your physician, naturopathic doctor, or holistic nutritionist about an elimination diet. If your symptoms reduce or go away when gluten is removed and come back when it is reintroduced, you’ll have some confirmation of what’s going on.
3. What is celiac disease and is it the same as gluten sensitivity?
The short answer: not quite.
While gluten sensitivity can be mild or moderate (or even go undetected!) in some, gluten intolerance is more severe. The most commonly recognized issue associated with gluten intolerance is celiac disease, but it can be particularly difficult to diagnose. In fact, it’s often misdiagnosed as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
With celiac, the digestive tract becomes inflamed and irritated by gluten, which can prevent the absorption of nutrients into the body. Without intervention, intestinal damage can deprive the brain, bones, liver, nervous system, and other important organs of essential nutrients.
People with celiac typically experience frequent bloating and digestive tract discomfort, not to mention diarrhea. Even more, it can sometimes take up to 11 years from the time of the onset symptoms until a proper diagnosis.
So yes, people with celiac disease should definitely avoid gluten.
4. I love pizza and pasta! Is untreated gluten intolerance really that serious?
Gluten intolerance can quickly become a big issue for people who go untreated, and gluten can be very dangerous if you have celiac. Just to put that danger in perspective, a study in the journal Lancet stated that celiac disease patients who eat gluten once a month increase their overall risk of death by 600%.
And while you might want to yell, Darn you, gluten! in the bread and pasta aisle at the grocery store, there are plenty of gluten- and grain-free options out there for people with gluten and wheat issues. You just have to get creative!
5. Do I need gluten?
No. So you don't need to have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease to give up gluten for your health. Many respected experts, including Dr. William Davis, the author of the best selling Wheat Belly, recommends avoiding all wheat and gluten containing food products. I highly recommend getting a copy of his book if you suspect a gluten sensitivity. Primal Blueprint founder Mark Sisson emphasizes that grains are totally unnecessary – there are no nutrients in grains that you cannot get from other fruits and vegetables, and the downside of grains can be serious. Mark notes that grains add a lot of glucose into your system and a lot of extra calories, which few of us need.
6. How do I know if I’m gluten sensitive, gluten intolerant, or none of the above?
Luckily, there’s a test that analyzes salivary antibodies to specific proteins and enzymes (gladin and transglutaminase), and it’s 90% sensitive and 97% specific for gluten intolerance. This is great news for anyone showing symptoms of celiac or gluten sensitivity. If you’re worried about potential gluten sensitivity, have your healthcare professional order it for you.
If your test is negative, keep exploring the core issues behind your symptoms with your naturopathic physician. It is always a good idea to keep a food journal of your daily intake and physiological responses. Feel free to read up online what may be happening, but these conditions can be tricky and nuanced so go and talk to your holistic nutritionist or qualified health coach or naturopath to get more information. Listen to your gut.
Besides, it isn't easy to remove entire food groups from your diet, and it is important to ensure you don't just replace bread with gluten-free junk food. Plus, a grocery list "checkup" to ensure a good balance of nutrients never goes astray. Make sure to work with a reputable expert. If you need help finding someone in your area, the ACHS Alumni Practitioner Directory is searchable (http://directory.achs.edu/) or you might want to explore a professional organization, like the National Association of Nutrition Professionals (NANP).
P.S. One of my favorite ways to go gluten-free is to replace processed, white flour with almond flour. Your muffins will come out just as delicious. Promise!
Have some gluten food replacement go-to’s of your own? Please share in the comments.
Disclosure of Material Connection: I am the CSO of American College of Healthcare Sciences, the Institution that publishes this blog. However, all opinions are our own. If this blog contains affiliate links, they will be marked with an asterisk. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”
This article is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to treat, diagnose, cure, or prevent disease. This article has not been reviewed by the FDA. Always consult with your primary care physician or naturopathic doctor before making any significant changes to your health and wellness routine.
 Celiac Disease Foundation. (n.d.). Gluten Sensitivity. [Online]. Retrieved from https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/non-celiac-gluten-sensitivity/
 Mayo Clinic Staff. (2013, May 22). Celiac disease. [Online]. Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/celiac-disease/basics/definition/con-20030410
 Leffler, D. Celiac disease diagnosis and management: a 46-year-old woman with anemia. JAMA. 2011;306:1582–1592
 Corrao, G., et al. Mortality in patients with coeliac disease and their relatives: a cohort study. The Lancet, 358(9279), 356-361.
 Davis, W. (2014). Wheat belly. New York, NY: Rodale.