What is Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity and what are its Symptoms?
It seems that going ‘gluten free’ has become the trendiest thing since sliced bread as long as your bread is not made of wheat, rye or barley! But if you’re someone who finds eating all the fun stuff like bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, crackers, or beer leaves you feeling a food ‘hangover’ with all sorts of physical and mental symptoms then perhaps it’s time to separate the wheat from the chaff when it comes to gluten intolerance and consider whether you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
What is Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?
As the name suggests Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) is a condition that rules out celiac disease (and wheat allergy) yet still presents with a variety of symptoms, both in the digestive system and the rest of your body, that occur after eating products containing gluten. These symptoms seem to resolve when gluten is removed from your diet.
How do I know if I'm gluten sensitive?
Unlike celiac disease (which is an autoimmune condition) or wheat allergy that have specific biomarkers, there is no simple blood test you can get to determine if you’re gluten sensitive. When celiac disease and wheat intolerance are ruled out, gluten sensitivity is ‘tested’ in the form of monitoring symptoms before, during and after a gluten free diet.
It’s important to note that NCGS is NOT associated with malabsorption of nutrients or damage to the digestive tract, though compromised permeability, ‘leaky gut’ has been found in gluten sensitive patients. It is thought that if you have gluten sensitivity, as in NCGS, that your body reacts to the gluten you eat with a system-wide immune response and that’s why there are a lot of symptoms related to other parts of your body.
Can you suddenly become gluten sensitive?
With the shopping isles becoming packed with gluten-free products, it would appear that gluten sensitivity has become a lot more prevalent. The truth is that a lot of people ‘self-diagnose’ gluten sensitivity and find that when they eat a gluten free diet, they ‘feel’ better. While this forms part of how gluten sensitivity is diagnosed, Science is yet to pinpoint the exact mechanism or the triggers for gluten sensitivity.
Research suggests that the proteins gliadin and ATIs (amylase/trypsin inhibitors) found in foods containing gluten (wheat, rye, and barley) may be responsible for the development of symptoms, meaning it can happen at any point during your life.
Gluten sensitivity symptoms
One of the things that sets gluten sensitivity apart from celiac disease or wheat allergy is that it causes both intestinal and extra-intestinal symptoms. The intestinal symptoms are closely related to those of irritable bowel syndrome, with stomach pain, bloating and gas.
While the extra-intestinal symptoms can range from physical to mental health concerns, such as:
Feeling tired and fatigued seems to be a symptom of our fast-paced lives these days. But if you’re feeling consistently fatigued, especially after eating foods containing gluten, it may raise concerns of gluten sensitivity. In fact, a recent study looking into symptoms of 486 patients with suspected NCGS found that 64% experienced tiredness.
The odd headache is part of life, but if you start to see a pattern of headaches after eating certain foods then it’s worth investigating gluten sensitivity. One study found over half of the gluten sensitive patients experienced headaches after eating foods with gluten and another small study found a relationship between gluten sensitivity and migraine.
Anxiety and depression
There’s a good reason that the study of anxiety and depression is a huge field. There are so many factors involved, yet more and more research is emerging about the gut-brain axis and the link of microbiota imbalances to anxiety and depression. While anxiety can literally make you feel ‘sick to your stomach’, research found that 39% of NCGS patients experienced anxiety after consuming foods with gluten. It definitely gives you second thoughts before reaching for that gluten-rich cookie!
Fibromyalgia-like joint and muscle pain
The last thing that you think of when you have joint and muscle pain is that it was caused by something you ate! But that’s exactly what researchers found happened to approximately 31% of non-celiac gluten sensitive patients when they eat foods containing gluten. It’s theorized that gluten causes an inflammatory response in those who are sensitive to it, resulting in joint and muscle pain. Similarly, studies have found limb numbness is regularly reported in NCGS. However, the good news is joint pain and limb numbness symptoms often improved or resolved on gluten-free diets.
Brain fog is that awful feeling of lacking focus, forgetting things, and generally feeling mentally exhausted. And if we’re honest with ourselves then there could be any number of factors from sleep to stress that contribute to that foggy feeling. But if it’s arising after certain meals that contain gluten perhaps it’s time to focus on the reason why! While the mechanism is unknown, it is a common (38%) complaint amongst those with NCGS!
Dermatitis or skin rash
While an allergy to wheat will often cause a rash, it is thought that dermatitis or skin rash in NCGS patients is the result of system-wide inflammation, similar to the mechanism that occurs in joint pain. When it comes to rashes from foods, it’s always a good idea to rule out allergies with your doctor to ensure your safety against anaphylaxis.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is fast becoming recognised as a clinical condition with research moving beyond Celiac disease and wheat allergy. With the growth of the gluten-free market it’s clear that it’s more common than reported. While many people choose gluten-free because they ‘feel’ better, it’s likely associated with a degree of gluten sensitivity. Feeling better is all about overall health and while avoiding gluten if you are non-celiac gluten sensitive is essentially to improve symptoms, you can also work on improving your gut health!
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