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Is Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity for Real?

Many people without Celiac disease feel better when they avoid gluten. But it turns out that gluten may have nothing to do with it. Nutrition Diva explores the latest research.

By
Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS
4-minute read
Episode #257

They repeated the study a few weeks later, using the same subjects. The overall results were similar: the same percentage of people responded poorly to each of the interventions. But interestingly, many of the people who had responded poorly to gluten the first time had no trouble with gluten the second time. Instead, they either had no increase in symptoms or they had an increase in symptoms to whey protein or to the placebo.

A unique and reproducible response to gluten was present in fewer than 10% of people who described themselves as sensitive to gluten. 

What does this tell us? Well, I guess it tells us that people with IBS have very sensitive tummies. But it also suggests that for most of them, gluten is not a unique or reliable trigger. When they crunched all the numbers, the researchers concluded that actual gluten sensitivity (defined as a unique and reproducible response to gluten) was present in fewer than 10% of people who described themselves as sensitive to gluten. 

Does Gluten Damage the Gut?

There's one other aspect of the study that deserves mention. Many people - such as the authors of recent best-sellers like Wheat Belly and Grain Brain - claim that gluten irritates and damages the lining of the intestines, causing a condition sometimes described as "leaky gut." So, in addition to asking subjects to record and rate their symptoms, the researchers also did extensive blood work, looking for signs of immune activation, intestinal inflammation, or increased gut permeability. For what it's worth, these researchers did not observe any signs of these effects in response to gluten. 

What Does This Study Mean for You? 

All of this, of course, is very interesting to researchers and those who study nutrition science. But what if anything, can we take away from this research in terms of real-world applications? For me, there are two take home lessons for those who suspect that they are gluten sensitive:

  1. To the extent that wheat contributes to digestive problems, it's probably the fiber and not the gluten that is the culprit. Avoiding wheat solves the problem either way, of course. But, given the amount of nutrition misinformation that circulates these days, I still think it's worth trying to keep our facts straight. 
  2. And here's the really exciting part: If you avoid wheat because it helps reduce digestive distress, you might feel even better on a low FODMAPs diet

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Gluten-free bread and stomach ache images courtesy of Shutterstock.

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About the Author

Monica Reinagel, MS, LD/N, CNS

Monica Reinagel is a board-certified licensed nutritionist, author, and the creator of one of iTunes' most highly ranked health and fitness podcasts. Her advice is regularly featured on the TODAY show, Dr. Oz, NPR, and in the nation's leading newspapers, magazines, and websites. Do you have a nutrition question? Call the Nutrition Diva listener line at 443-961-6206. Your question could be featured on the show.