What is a gluten allergy?

Eighteen million people in the United States are sensitive or allergic to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. The hard-to-digest "gluey" substance is a hidden danger and a much bigger problem to people's digestive systems than previously believed. Look for more gluten-free products hitting shelves.

A true allergy to gluten is called celiac disease. In this disease, the body cannot digest gluten (a substance present in grains, especially wheat), and it causes bad diarrhea with weight loss because the person cannot absorb all the essential nutrients from food. This particular disease affects about only 1 percent of the population. It is not as common as most people believe.

Rachel Begun
Nutrition & Dietetics Specialist

Using the correct medical terminology, technically, there is no such thing as a gluten allergy. There is celiac disease, which is an autoimmune response to gluten in which the intestines show an inflammatory response to ingestion of gluten, even the smallest amounts. There is non-celiac gluten sensitivity, in which people experience symptoms similar to celiac disease, but they do not exhibit antibodies to gluten nor intestinal damage. Finally, there is wheat allergy (or potentially a rye or barley allergy), which is a classic food allergy in which the body experiences a histamine response to wheat protein(s) such as itching, swelling and potentially more serious symptoms such as shortness of breath, drop in blood pressure and anaphylaxis.

If you think you may have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, it is important that you do not go on a gluten free diet until you see a doctor and get tested. Going gluten free before testing can lead to false negative test results. Once under the care of your health care provider, they will guide you as to when and if it is appropriate to go on a gluten free diet.

For a first step, you can either see a GI doctor or your primary care physician, both of whom can do the initial blood testing. If your primary care physician tests you and the results are indicative of celiac disease, they will refer you to a GI doctor to do the second phase of testing, an endoscopy with small bowel biopsy.

Dr. Paul M. Ehrlich, MD
Allergist & Immunologist

Gluten is a real food villain. In some people it causes inflammatory changes in the gut stemming from immunological processes, although they are not related to the allergic antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE). However, the range of claims that are made about its widespread presence seems to me to be excessive. If you suspect you have a problem with gluten, eliminate it in all forms from your diet for two to four weeks and see if you feel better.

Asthma Allergies Children: A Parent's Guide

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.