What Happens to Your Body When You’re Gluten Intolerant?
Plus, the difference between gluten sensitivity and celiac.
While it may appear to be the diet du jour, for many people, going gluten-free is simply the best way to remain comfortable in their bodies. Those who live with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity describe intense belly bloat and pain after eating a slice or two of toast. Other people will break out in an uncomfortable rash, and have been told they simply “didn’t win the skin lottery.” Once they removed gluten from their routines entirely—for some celiac-sufferers, that even means requiring a toaster exclusively for gluten-free bread—their symptoms subsided. What’s really going on?
Though it’s obvious from the name, NCGS and celiac disease are not the same. Alyssa Ardolino, RD, Nutrition Communications Coordinator, International Food Information Council, told me in an email that Celiac is a genetic, autoimmune disorder than causes flattening of the cells lining the small intestine, which in turn can lead to anemia, behavioral changes, and stunted growth, among other complications. “In other words, the body begins to attack itself, which can lead to malabsorption of nutrients,” Ardolino explained. To be officially diagnosed with celiac, Ardolino said that people must undergo blood tests and a small intestine biopsy.
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“Non-celiac gluten sensitivity, also referred to as gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance, is less clear,” Ardolino wrote. “It is not an allergy nor is it an autoimmune reaction (as with celiac disease).” Ardolino told me that because there are no tests or biomarkers to diagnose NCGS, the insensitivity is extremely subjective from person to person. Complications from NCGS are typically less severe than celiac, though still very uncomfortable. Typical signs of the sensitivity present as gastrointestinal pain like bloating, constipation or diarrhea. Ardolino noted that as of today, following a gluten-free diet is the only treatment available to those with NCGS.
“It’s important to be clear when talking about gluten intolerance, as celiac disease often has much more serious implications,” Ardolino said. “Because gluten-free diets are trendy right now, it’s not easy to assume the reason behind a person’s decision to be gluten-free.” Indeed, going gluten-free may seem appealing to those experiencing GI troubles or skin problems, but as with any diets, especially elimination diets, it’s important to consult a doctor before making drastic changes.