Gluten [GLOO-tin] is a kind of protein that is found in grains like wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is often found in foods that use these ingredients, but it can also be found in medicines, vitamins, and supplements that use small amounts of these ingredients. Gluten intolerance, also called gluten sensitivity, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, or non-celiac wheat sensitivity, is a disorder where your body reacts badly to eating gluten.
In some ways, gluten intolerance is similar to celiac [SEE-lee-ak] disease, a condition in which eating gluten causes symptoms. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that is hereditary (runs in the family).
An autoimmune disease is a condition that occurs when the body’s immune system (infection-fighting system) mistakenly attacks and destroys the body’s tissue. In celiac disease, gluten causes a reaction that destroys the lining of the small intestines. This reduces the area for absorbing virtually all nutrients.
A gluten intolerance can cause problems with your digestive system, but it won’t cause permanent damage to your stomach, intestine, or other organs. However, gluten intolerance is similar to celiac disease, a condition that can cause permanent damage to your small intestine, so you should talk to a gastroenterologist [GAH-strow-EHN-tehr-AHL-ih-jist] (a doctor who specializes in studying the digestive system) if you think you might have gluten intolerance.
The difference between gluten intolerance and celiac disease is that people with celiac disease can have damage to their small intestine when they eat gluten. If you have gluten intolerance, you still shouldn’t eat gluten, but it will not cause permanent damage to your body.
If you have gluten intolerance, you might experience many different symptoms when you eat foods containing gluten. Symptoms can be different in each person. Common symptoms are:
- Stomach bloating and pain
- Diarrhea, constipation, or vomiting
- Tiredness or fatigue
- Bone or joint pain
- Itchy skin (dermatitis herpetiformis [DUHR-muh-TYE-tis huhr-PEH-tih-FOHR-mis])
Many of these symptoms are similar to the symptoms of celiac disease. The major difference between gluten intolerance and celiac disease symptoms is that celiac disease can cause permanent damage to your small intestine, and can cause symptoms like anemia and stunted growth.
You should see your doctor if you have any of the symptoms above when you eat foods containing gluten. This can be a sign of gluten intolerance or another serious problem like celiac disease or wheat allergy.
If you work with a doctor or registered dietician nutritionist (RDN) to remove gluten from your diet but you still have symptoms or your symptoms get worse, you might have a condition other than gluten intolerance. If this happens, you should talk to your doctor or RDN, because you might need to change your diet or have additional testing done.
Right now, doctors don’t have a single test that can diagnose gluten intolerance. If your doctor thinks you might have gluten intolerance, they will do what is called a “rule out” diagnosis. This means that they will try to diagnose you with other problems, and if you don’t have any of those, they might decide that you have gluten intolerance. Some conditions your doctor might test for include:
- Celiac disease. Celiac disease is diagnosed with blood tests. The results of the test may need to be confirmed with a biopsy of the small intestine. A biopsy is done during a procedure called an endoscopy.
- Wheat allergy. A wheat allergy is different from celiac disease and gluten intolerance, and is similar to other food allergies like nut and shellfish allergies. A skin test, a procedure where the doctor scratches your skin with a tiny needle containing wheat, can be used to diagnose this allergy.
There may also be other conditions causing your symptoms. If your doctor decides that you might have a gluten intolerance, they might work with you to remove gluten from your diet and see if your symptoms improve.
The treatment for gluten intolerance is to eat a gluten-free diet. You will have to stay on the gluten-free diet even after you feel well. You might also need to take certain vitamins and supplements to make sure your body is getting all the nutrients it needs to stay healthy.
Because there is gluten in so many of the foods we eat, it can be hard to find ways to take it out of your diet completely. If you have a gluten intolerance, you can work with a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN) to design a diet that works best for you or your child. RDNs are trained to help people with nutritional challenges.
A gluten intolerance is a long-term problem. You or your child will not “grow out of it.” If you do not follow the diet prescribed by the doctor or RDN, the problems will continue and get worse over time.