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Gluten Sensitivity, what does it mean?

Gluten, gluten sensitivity, and gluten-free foods are all parts of a very big topic that is becoming relevant for a growing segment of our population. Experts now estimate that 7-8 out of every 10 Americans are gluten sensitive! This article is not an attempt to exhaustively cover this topic but instead, to provide some basic information in what is, hopefully, a helpful FAQ format. Please consult your doctor for more information.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein that is found in the grains wheat, rye, barley, oats, spelt, and kamut. It breaks down further into smaller particles, any of which may cause a reaction. All of the possible pieces (approximately 12) that can cause a reaction are called epitopes. For ease of discussion, for the remainder of the article we will just call it "gluten" but the reaction is actually with one or more of these epitopes.

What is gluten sensitivity?

Gluten sensitivity is an immune reaction to gluten (one of the epitopes). Your body perceives gluten as a foreign invader and launches an attack against it. The real problem with this is that frequently some of your body tissues are mistaken for gluten and suffer from the immune attack at the same time. This can happen, for example, with Hashimoto's autoimmune hypothyroid when thyroid tissue is mistaken by the immune system for gluten and attacked.

How can a natural grain cause so many problems?

This is a great question and one whose answer is not fully understood. It is most likely multi-factorial with all of the following being possible factors:

Grains have been genetically modified (not the same grains from 50 years ago)

Grains are processed in new ways

Our population is sicker than it used to be for many reasons:

More leaky gut

Higher toxicity

Chronic stress

Poor nutrition

Enzyme insufficiency

How do I know if I am gluten sensitive, what are the symptoms?

Well, this is a tough question to answer because the symptoms can vary widely. Here's why--each of the 12 epitopes has a different characteristic reaction in the body. For example, alpha-gliadin (the epitope associated with celiac disease) frequently causes gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating, cramping, diarrhea, etc. But others may cause only neurological symptoms such as "brain fog" and fatigue. It is very dangerous to assume that because you have no gastrointestinal symptoms, you do not react to gluten. For full lists of possible symptoms, please see the websites listed under "Resources" below.

I was tested and it was negative, which means I can eat gluten right?

Unfortunately, the answer to this is "maybe, maybe not". Traditional lab testing will only check for a reaction against one or two of the possible epitopes, leaving up to 10 others that you may be reacting to! There is now more sophisticated lab testing available to test all 12 (known) epitopes, please ask your doctor if you would like to know more.

I can't afford expensive lab testing but suspect I may be sensitive, what should I do?

The good news about this is that you can go on a gluten-free diet at absolutely no cost to you. Just make sure you are really gluten-free (see below) and do it for at least 6 months. If you feel better, you are most likely gluten-sensitive. And, if you are willing to deal with the health consequences, you could try to re-introduce gluten and see how you feel over the following week.

What other foods contain gluten?

The obvious ones are easy, i.e. anything made from the list of gluten-containing grains such as bread, pasta, cake, etc. However, there is a host of other ingredients that may hide gluten. Here is a brief list of things that commonly contain gluten: soy sauce, modified food starch, emulsifiers, stabilizers, artificial food colorings, malt extract/flavor/syrup, and dextrins. Please see the "Resources" list below for some helpful websites that have more information regarding hidden gluten sources.

Can gluten sensitivity develop anytime?

Yes. There is probably some element of genetic predisposition but it can be triggered at any time by other stresses in the body.

Will I always have it?

This is more difficult to answer; based on what we currently know, the answer seems to be yes. It is certainly safest at this point to strictly avoid gluten indefinitely if you are sensitive to it. This is especially true if you have an autoimmune disease.

I'm mostly gluten-free but I haven't felt any difference, why?

There is no such thing as mostly gluten-free!!! It's like saying you are a little bit pregnant. A miniscule amount of gluten can set off a reaction that goes on for months!!

I went gluten-free and felt worse! Does this mean that my body does better with gluten?

Probably not. Some of the gluten epitopes act like an opiate in the body and you can actually develop a physical addiction to them. This causes a withdrawal-type reaction that can be uncomfortable but know that you will feel better at the other end.

If a product is gluten-free, does that mean it is healthy?

Unfortunately this is not the case. All grains can be refined and processed and many gluten-free replacements for baked goods are loaded with sugar. Unrefined, unprocessed foods will still be a healthier option.


Gluten-free websites

Gluten hides in so many unlikely places on the grocery shelves and in restaurants. is a comprehensive catch-all that includes lists of safe and unsafe foods, articles, books, and other sources.

Gluten-free Goddess

Although stabilizing your blood sugar is imperative to managing autoimmune disorders, it's nice to know occasional treats can be delicious AND gluten-free. Karina's writing is witty and she includes beautiful photos:

Gluten-free Girl

"Gluten-free girl" Shauna has garnered much publicity for her gluten-free recipes, resources, and more:

Going grain-free/other food intolerances

Heart of Cooking

Sarah has some truly delicious recipes that are quick, easy, and kid-friendly. She has recipes for practically every food intolerance you can imagine.

Elana's Pantry

Elana has garnered popularity for her grain-free meals and desserts:

Primal Body, Primal Mind

Nora is a neuro-feedback therapist who has done ample research on the benefits of a grain-free diet: