As of late, gluten has been getting a bad rap. You may be following a gluten-free diet because it seems better for your health — while others have adopted gluten-free diets as a result of a condition known as celiac disease.
Gluten is a protein that naturally occurs in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, and some oats. It’s also an additive used in commercial bread and other packaged foods. Some people have a reaction to gluten in their diet which can be due to celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
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What Is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is a digestive and autoimmune disorder in which gluten proteins cause inflammation and damage to the small intestine. The body’s immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine, which is responsible for absorbing nutrients. When the body isn’t able to absorb nutrients from food, the person can suffer from malnutrition.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
Celiac affects about one in 150 people. Common symptoms include:
- Blistering skin rash
People diagnosed with the disorder must follow a strict gluten-free diet to improve symptoms and avoid long-term complications.
If you have symptoms of celiac disease, your doctor will first perform a blood test and may confirm the diagnosis with a biopsy of the small intestine.
What Is Gluten Sensitivity?
Approximately one in 20 people have a negative reaction to foods with gluten but not an inflammatory response. This condition is called gluten intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Many symptoms of gluten intolerance are similar to celiac disease, such as diarrhea, nausea, and fatigue. However, gluten sensitivity doesn’t cause an immune response or intestinal damage.
Doctors do not have a blood test to diagnose a sensitivity to gluten. If you have gluten intolerance, your celiac tests will be normal.
If you continue to experience symptoms after eating foods containing gluten, talk with your gastroenterologist or a specialist for guidance.
Causes of Gluten Sensitivity
Doctors don’t fully understand the reasons behind gluten sensitivity. It’s possible that a variety of other substances collectively falling under the acronym FODMAPs, may be the culprit. It’s also possible that the quantity of gluten, which is much higher in processed foods and current strains of wheat, may be the cause.
Treatment may involve a gluten-free trial period to see if that helps resolve your symptoms. A dietitian can help you develop an eating plan to ensure you get proper nutrition while avoiding potentially harmful foods.
You may also try an elimination diet, where you eliminate troublesome foods and add them back one by one to discover what is causing your symptoms.
If you have stomach discomfort or distress after eating bread, cake, cookies, or other grains, see your doctor. Testing to rule out celiac disease will allow you to find an eating plan that doesn’t cause discomfort.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
About Digestive Disorders
UPMC Digestive Health Care cares for a wide range of gastrointestinal (GI) conditions and diseases, from diagnosis to treatment. Whether your digestive condition is common or complicated, our experts can help. Upon referral from your physician, we coordinate your testing and treatment. If you have a complicated condition, we can refer you to one of UPMC’s digestive health centers of excellence. Find a GI doctor near you.