In today’s blog post, we will uncover the mystery behind gluten sensitivity and why it seems to be affecting an increasing number of individuals in recent times. From the very basics of gluten to the complex interplay of gut health and modern wheat, we’ll explore the multifaceted factors contributing to this puzzling occurrence and the important distinction between gluten sensitivity vs celiac disease.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a mix of hundreds of related but distinct proteins, primarily gliadin and glutenin, and is found primarily in wheat, barley and rye. Gliadin gives bread the ability to rise during baking, whereas glutenin gives dough elasticity. Altogether, gluten gives bread, pasta, and other starches that delicious, chewy mouthfeel that can make eating it so pleasurable.

Three bread loafs containing gluten.

On average, people eat about five to 20 grams of gluten every day in the form of bread, cookies, crackers, pasta, and other starchy and grain-based foods. About 80 percent of the protein in bread wheat is gluten and while pasta has a little less gluten, it is still a common source. Additional sources of gluten include: 

  • Bulgar
  • Couscous
  • Farro
  • Orzo
  • Spelt
  • Wheat bran
  • Imitation meats
  • Beer
  • Soy sauce 
  • Ice cream 
  • Ketchup
  • Cereals
  • Granola
  • Croutons
  • Caramel color
  • Processed lunch meats

On the other hand, common gluten-free grains include:

  • Amaranth
  • Sorghum
  • Millet
  • Rice
  • Quinoa
  • Teff

Birds-eye-view image of a bowl of oats to represent foods that may be contaminated with gluten.

Oats are one grain that are naturally gluten-free but are frequently contaminated with gluten during processing and must be labeled certified gluten-free to confirm that they are 100% gluten-free. In order to ensure that packaged foods are prepared 100% gluten-free, a person avoiding gluten needs to carefully read labels and ingredient lists and ask questions when eating out. One of the best things to look for when purchasing gluten free foods is a certified gluten-free label that ensures that the food contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm). 

Gluten Sensitivity vs Celiac Disease: What is the Difference?

Celiac Disease

For people with celiac disease the lining of the small intestine is damaged causing inflammation of the villi – also referred to as villous atrophy. As a result of this inflammation, the surface area of the small intestine, which enables the absorption of nutrients and minerals, is seriously reduced. For this reason, those diagnosed with celiac disease need to adhere to a 100% gluten-free diet for life in order to reverse and prevent further damage. 

About one percent of the population has this condition, but it has been estimated that 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed. Undiagnosed or untreated celiac disease can lead to long-term health conditions:

  • Iron deficiency anemia
  • Early onset osteoporosis
  • Infertility
  • Pancreatic insufficiency
  • Type 1 diabetes 
  • Multiple sclerosis (MS)

The most common GI symptoms for people with celiac disease are diarrhea, and abdominal pain. 

Gluten Allergy (aka Wheat Allergy) 

A second gluten-related condition is a gluten allergy, also known as a wheat allergy, where the body responds to wheat proteins with antibodies called immunoglobulin E (IgE). The common symptoms of gluten allergy often overlap with those of celiac disease and may include bloating, diarrhea, and cramping. In addition, just like celiac disease, those with a gluten allergy need to avoid gluten 100%. 

Birds-eye-view of oat bowl topped with almonds and raisins.

Gluten Sensitivity

The third type of gluten reaction that is perhaps more common is non-celiac gluten sensitivities. This means that you do not have celiac disease or a wheat allergy but you do experience adverse physiological changes after gluten consumption that manifest in intestinal and extraintestinal symptoms.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is confirmed by gluten withdrawal and IgG food sensitivity testing. When someone with non-celiac gluten sensitivity takes gluten out of their diet, their symptoms improve, but manifests again shortly after gluten consumption. There is great overlap in symptoms between non-celiac gluten sensitivity and other functional gastrointestinal disorders. For this type of gluten reaction,  eliminating gluten from your diet is the only option to control your symptoms. 

Why Are Gluten-related Symptoms on the Rise?

So we have discussed the difference between gluten sensitivity vs celiac disease vs gluten allergies – but now the question becomes, why are gluten-related symptoms so prevalent? Everywhere we look now the words ‘gluten-free’ come up in restaurants, cafes and on many food products and packages. It seems like everyone’s talking about the possible negative effects it can have on our health. Here are a few possible contributing factors as to why gluten-related issues may be  on the rise:

  1. Newer wheat varieties such as the dwarf wheat have a higher gluten content to improve the consistency and sponginess of baked goods
  2. Gluten acts as a natural insecticide so farmers favor higher gluten varieties which are more likely to cause health problems
  3. Higher consumption over the years of wheat-based products
  4. Lack of traditional preparations Modern baking practices have shortened bread leavening, which potentially means increased exposure to gluten. Today’s bread is a product of cross-breeding and genetic manipulation that began in the 1960s to create a higher-yielding, lower-cost crop. Modern wheat has also been bleached and heavily processed. 
  5. The newer breeds of wheat have a higher content of Glia-9 which is a type of gluten. And this type of gluten is the most associated with health problems

The Truth About Glyphosate Exposure

Another trigger for why people consuming gluten are experiencing more and more GI symptoms may also stem from the high use of the glyphosate. Most wheat today is routinely sprayed with glyphosate, the active ingredient in Roundup®  and most widely used herbicide, increasing its yield. This practice is commonly referred to as crop desiccation. Researchers have found that 80 – 90 percent of popular wheat-based foods are contaminated with glyphosate.  Similarly, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) examined five samples of dried pasta and seven samples of cereal. All of them contained glyphosate

Image of wheat crops to represent gluten.

Researchers in one study proposed that glyphosate is the most important factor for gluten intolerance. The study found out that fish exposed to glyphosate develop digestive problems that resemble celiac disease. Glyphosate is believed to contribute to negative changes in the gut microbiome leading to dysbiosis.  All this can create nutrient deficiencies and can be a contributing factor to leaky gut.

Gluten and Leaky Gut: Are They Linked?

When you eat gluten, the body creates zonulin which is a protein that regulates the permeability of tight junctions between cells of the gut wall. Over time, eating gluten and releasing zonulin can open up the tight junctions between intestinal cells. Think of the gut wall as a cheesecloth, where only the smallest particles should pass. Zonulin makes the holes of the cheesecloth bigger, so bigger particles are able to slip through the gut wall leading to leaky gut.

Leaky gut can eventually create inflammation throughout the body and lead to autoimmune disease. In fact, excessive zonulin production occurs with many autoimmune diseases and during flare-ups of celiac disease. You don’t have to have celiac disease for gluten to trigger the release of zonulin and increase intestinal permeability.

Final Thoughts 

When it comes to the difference between gluten sensitivity vs celiac disease they are similar in the sense that factors such as genetic predisposition, wheat changes, gut health, and dietary habits all play a role. However, the resulting symptoms and damage to the gut can vary widely so it is important to speak to a health care professional if you have concerns about gluten-related symptoms. With this newfound understanding, we can make informed choices about our diets and embrace healthier lifestyles. If you are new in your gut healing journey and are unsure how and where to start, I have great FREE resources available just for you! I have created a comprehensive guide that provides a step-by-step framework to start your gut healing journey on the right path and you can download for FREE today

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