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Natural Awakenings Westchester / Putnam / Dutchess New York

Distinguishing and Determining Gluten Sensitivities

Jun 28, 2013 05:56PM ● By Dr. Michael Wald

Gluten is a generic form of protein found in most grains, including rice and corn. A specific type of gluten contained in wheat, barley, rye and, possibly, oats and spelt can pose health problems for many people. Research has shown that gluten can cause symptoms and diseases that go unidentified by medical specialists. This is because gluten can trigger the immune system to initiate an inflammatory response, causing cellular and tissue destruction virtually anywhere in the body. The resulting symptoms can look like other diseases, thereby masking the gluten trigger. For example, a sub-type of multiple sclerosis and some seizures can initially be caused by an adverse autoimmune reaction provoked by gluten.

Why the rise in gluten intolerance?

The exponential rise in gluten intolerance can be linked to the evolution of both people and agriculture. The gluten that is found in modern day wheat has not been in the human diet long enough for natural digestive adaptation. The result is a backlash from our immune systems in the form of Celiac disease and non-Celiac gluten intolerance and gluten allergies. Modern wheat has also been engineered to contain much more gluten that older varieties, creating far more toxic foods for those who react adversely to wheat.

These days gluten is found in thousands of food products, most of which are introduced to people at an early age. In the 1950s, Celiac disease statistics stated that the condition was found in 1 out of every 8000 people. Today, this disease is found in 1 out of every 800 people. Non-Celiac gluten intolerance is even more prevalent.

Distinguishing Celiac disease from gluten intolerances

Depending upon the individual, some amount of gluten may be tolerated. Others suffer miserably with Celiac disease and undiagnosed gluten intolerances. Here are some characteristics of the three primary gluten issues:

gluten intolerance—a person may have no symptoms in the intestinal tract, but suffer from other symptoms of intolerance that disappear when gluten products are eliminated from the diet. This is a curable condition.

gluten allergy—this involves the specific stimulation of what is known as type I hypersensitiy (allergy) reactions. Symptoms are produced immediately or within three days of gluten consumption and can involve any system of the body.  This is also curable.

Celiac disease—this is an incurable form of gluten intolerance that can only be resolved with complete, or nearly complete, gluten elimination from the diet including, but not limited to, barley, rye, oats, wheat and spelt. Fifty percent of the time, the only symptom of Celiac disease is diarrhea, but the rest of the time symptoms can include headaches, autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, infertility, a skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis, migraines and more.

Testing procedures

Unfortunately, lab testing for gluten sensitivity is imperfect. A food and symptom log is a good tool for keeping track of potential responses from gluten to determine whether it is the real cause of physical issues and not something else in the diet or environment. If you remove gluten from your diet and notice that you feel better and your health problems resolve, then you likely have an intolerance.

The diagnosis of Celiac disease is determined by a small biopsy to look for a loss of intestinal absorption cells known as villi. Endoscopy is considered the “gold standard” in this procedure and involves inserting a long tube with a camera at one end into the mouth and esophagus and taking the biopsy samples. A Celiac blood panel can accompany the endoscopy. There’s also genetic testing for Celiac disease and other health conditions that share the same genes.

Tests for absorption, nutritional balance, immunity and body composition can be invaluable when used in combination with a nutritionist’s detailed questionnaire. These holistic approaches can be used to design an individualized health and recovery program to remedy years of problems stemming from gluten exposure. Merely focusing on a “leaky gut” is a mistake, as each person with a gluten issue has unique nutritional needs and healing responses.

Dr. Michael Wald is the Director of Nutrition at Integrated Medicine of Mount Kisco, NY. For more information, call 914.242.8844 or visit, or