Many people avoid gluten in their diet, but why is gluten an issue? Does gluten sensitivity exist? And if it does, what is the difference between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity? In this edition of Honest Nutrition, we examine the details.
Gluten sensitivity, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), is a genuine condition that falls under the umbrella term “gluten intolerance.”
This article covers the various types of gluten intolerance, including NCGS.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is perhaps one of the most controversial and misunderstood food compounds. Although often seen as a single protein, gluten encompassesTrusted Source a number of proteins called prolamins.
Prolamins are present in wheat, rye, barley, and a cross between wheat and rye known as triticale.
Although there are many prolamins present in these grains, gliadin and glutenin are the main prolaminsTrusted Source in wheat.
These proteins are resistant to complete digestion by digestive enzymes that reside in the gastrointestinal (GI) tract.
This is because enzymes that the pancreas, stomach, and brush border of the intestinal tract produce are unableTrusted Source to fully break down proteins that have a high content of proline residue. Proline is an amino acid — the building block of protein — that is present in gluten.
Incomplete digestion of these proteins allowsTrusted Source large units of amino acids called peptides to cross over through the wall of the small intestine.
These fragments cross the intestinal barrier and travel to other parts of the body, where they can triggerTrusted Source an inflammatory immune response in susceptible individuals.
It is important to note that gluten proteins are exceptionally resistant to digestion in all peopleTrusted Source, not just in people who have celiac disease, which is an autoimmune condition.
Types of gluten-related conditions
“Gluten intolerance” is an umbrella term that refers to three major typesTrusted Source of gluten-related conditions. Below, we look at each in turn.
Celiac disease is perhaps the most well-known gluten-related medical condition. It is an autoimmune disease that involvesTrusted Source the immune system reacting to gluten proteins.
When people with celiac disease eat gluten, it leads to damage in the small intestine and causes a wide range of symptoms, including diarrhea, abdominal pain, and bloating.
Prolonged gluten exposure in people with celiac disease can lead to decreased bone mineral density, significant weight loss, iron deficiency anemia, seizures, muscle weaknessTrusted Source, and other serious symptomsTrusted Source.
Prevalence varies around the world, with some countriesTrusted Source experiencing higher rates than others.
Experts estimate that the condition currently affects around 1–2%Trusted Source of the population in the United States and is more commonTrusted Source in females.
Celiac disease is also more common in people who have other autoimmune conditions, including type 1 diabetes.
Experts believe that the condition is due to both genetic and environmental factors. Doctors usually recommend that people with celiac disease follow a strict gluten-free diet.
According to researchTrusted Source, people with a wheat allergy have an allergic reaction to proteins present in wheat. This type of allergy is much more common in children, although it can also affect adults.
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