You deal with bloating, stomach aches and gastrointestinal pain every time you eat food made from gluten. While you may not have celiac disease and skeptics cast doubt on your symptoms, a new study suggests your gluten sensitivity is the real deal.
Scientists out of Columbia University say you may not be diagnosed with celiac disease, but the pain you encounter after eating gluten may be because of a weak intestinal barrier, triggering body-wide inflammation.
In short, while your friends and family say you’re making up your bad reaction after eating bread and pasta, these doctors believe a leaky gut may be to blame.
“Our study shows that the symptoms reported by individuals with this condition are not imagined, as some people have suggested,” study co-author, Dr. Peter Green, said in a university statement.
“It demonstrates that there is a biological basis for these symptoms in a significant number of these patients,” Green said.
There are about 300,000 Canadians living with celiac disease, according to Health Canada. It’s a food sensitivity triggered by gluten, causing damage to the small intestine while leaving patients with inflammation and abdominal pain among other symptoms.
But the medical community is struggling to figure out why some people who don’t have the genetic markers of celiac disease grapple with celiac-like symptoms. Aside from their stomach issues, gluten makes them feel tired and lethargic, it disrupts their mood and their focus, for example.
The condition is called non-celiac gluten or wheat sensitivity or NCWS. The guess is that exposure to gluten triggers an intestinal response. Because there are no distinct biomarkers for NCWS, it’s hard for doctors to pinpoint its prevalence, but the estimates are at about one per cent of the population. That’s roughly the same as celiac disease.
In his study, Green and his team worked with 80 people with NCWS along with 40 people with celiac disease and 40 healthy participants.
After comparing intestinal immune response between the groups, the scientists say that the NCWS group had a “weakened intestinal barrier.” Bacteria and food particles were getting into their intestinal walls and bloodstream, which sets off their inflammation and discomfort.
It was different from those with celiac, too. Their symptoms kicked in much faster, while celiac disease patients feel discomfort hours later.
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When those with NCWS cut gluten out of their diets for six months, they were able to normalize their immune activation and the damage to their intestinal cells, the researchers say.
Right now, the only way people manage celiac disease is by following a strict gluten-free diet, avoiding wheat, barley and rye. Instead, gluten-free diets swap these out for flours made with rice, soy, potatoes or tapioca.
Beans, nuts, fresh eggs, meat, fruit and vegetables are also safe bets for those with gluten intolerance.
Even people without diagnosed celiac disease have adopted gluten-free diets, too. They say they feel healthier with better digestion.
For years, Australian doctor Peter Gibson has been skeptical about gluten intolerance. In his 2014 findings, he said that it’s likely in your head.
His conclusions are based on a small study: he had 37 people who were allegedly sensitive to gluten cycle through three different diets: a high-gluten diet, low-gluten and control diet.
The results? Gibson’s participants reported stomach pain and sensitivity even when they weren’t eating gluten. Each diet had patients reporting pain, bloating, nausea and gas after their baseline treatment.
Read Green’s full findings published in the journal Gut.