I want to clarify something that confuses many people researching celiac disease and gluten intolerance. The term “gluten allergy symptoms” creates confusion and is not technically correct. I titled this article this confusing term on purpose to draw those using it so I might educate them on why it isn’t the best term for the implied conditions.
Use this clickable Table of Contents to navigate this lesson:
- Why Celiac Disease Is Not A Food Allergy
- Wheat Allergy Symptoms
- Gluten Intolerance Symptoms
- Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?
- Wide Misuse of the Phrase “Gluten Allergy” Online
- Legitimate Online Resources
Why Celiac Disease Is Not A Food Allergy
First of all, clinical celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) are fundamentally different from an allergic response. An allergy is a Type 1 Hypersensitivity that produces a different, more immediate response in our bodies than an intolerance or an autoimmune disease.
Someone suffering from celiac disease symptoms isn’t suffering from a food allergy; they’re suffering from an autoimmune disease. I explain this in greater detail elsewhere in the Gluten Intolerance School, but because I receive an overwhelming number of visitors and emails targeting the phrase “gluten allergy symptoms,” I thought I better address the term more directly in its own article.
Despite what many people believe and misunderstand, celiac disease is not a food allergy, so it may not cause the immediate and severe reaction people associate with food allergies. In fact, one dangerous aspect of celiac disease is how it can be latent or silent. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, that person may not experience obvious, tangible symptoms; but the damage is still being done.
This is critical to understand because someone who eats gluten and experiences no immediate or apparent reaction could still be suffering from celiac disease, which is a serious medical condition with very serious long-term consequences if left untreated.
Wheat Allergy Symptoms
It’s important to understand that an allergic reaction is completely different from the systemic reaction experienced over time with celiac disease. An allergy is a type 1 hypersensitivity while both celiac disease and a non-celiac gluten sensitivity are autoimmune responses.
Wheat allergy symptoms are the result of a histamine response. By itself, such an allergy doesn’t necessarily indicate celiac disease. An allergic reaction to wheat is more like the kind of allergy you might associate with allergies to peanuts, pollen (hay fever) and pets (I’m sure you’ve known someone allergic to cats or dogs).
With such a histamine response, what’s happening is the white blood cells known as basophils and mast cells over-react to Immunoglobulin E. This causes an immediate response. Symptoms of wheat allergy manifest themselves not unlike other allergic reactions you may recognize: hives, sneezing, runny nose, watery eyes, stomach discomfort and swelling of the affected area.
If you eat something with wheat in it and you experience these symptoms it doesn’t necessarily mean you have celiac disease. It may be a food allergy that can be diagnosed with an allergen test.
One example how fundamentally different this can be from gluten intolerance is that sometimes people can be allergic to foods containing wheat but can do fine with other gluten-containing grains, such as spelt or barley.
It is vital you understand how this is NOT the case for people who are truly gluten intolerant. Spelt and barley are just as bad for you as wheat if you are intolerant to gluten.
Please note that I am not trying to downplay the seriousness of a wheat allergy. Anaphylactic shock can be deadly.
Gluten Intolerance Symptoms
One could argue that celiac disease may in fact be more complicated, more subtle and yet just as serious (if not more serious, in some cases) over the long term. And because so many cases involve silent celiac disease symptoms, the gluten intolerance statistics reveal a disturbing trend of unaware patients walking around undiagnosed.
(Note: I don’t mean to marginalize the seriousness of allergic reactions. However, it is imperative for people to appreciate how celiac disease has long-term consequences far more serious than most immediately recognizable symptoms. If you suspect an autoimmune response, you should look into a gluten intolerance test.)
Celiac Disease is present when you have overly strong antibodies reacting to the proteins in gluten (gliadin and glutenin). These overreacting antibodies lash out at your intestinal enomysium. For a more detailed definition, please see: Gluten Intolerance Symptoms. For a more detailed understanding of the peculiar substance at the heart of this phenomenon, read my article: What Is Gluten?
If that last paragraph looked like a Martian language to you, don’t worry. I’ll try to explain it a little more simply. What basically happens here is when you eat a gluten-containing food, your body overreacts to it and that overreaction results in damage to certain innocent bystanders of your intestines: villi (and their microvilli).
These villi, which are tiny hairs or tiny fingers along the inner lining of your intestines, perform the vital role of grabbing nutrition from your food as it passes through your small intestine.
Over time, villous atrophy occurs. What this means is that your body’s overreaction slowly wears down and kills off the villi, making your small intestine less capable of digesting all foods — not just gluten-containing foods. This malabsorption has serious and far-reaching consequences. Short term consequences include:
- Joint Pain
- Low Ferritin
- Skin rashes, especially Dermatitis Herpetiformis
A real intolerance to gluten will lead to vitamin deficiencies and nourishment deficiencies in your nervous system, brain, bones and other organs (especially your liver).
This in turn may lead to a whole array of health problems, including severe malnutrition and if left untreated, even cancer. Children with gluten intolerance or CD frequently suffer from a failure to thrive and grow.
There are even rare cases where this frustrating condition and weight gain have become associated. Please read my article on that matter: Gluten Intolerance and Weight Gain.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?
To make this matter all more confusing, you can experience a form of gluten intolerance but still not test positive for celiac disease. There is still much to learn about this new subset of gluten intolerance, but the vital part to understand is that you can be gluten intolerant yet test negative for celiac disease. This is now called Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitive (NCGS). Some of these undiagnosed individuals may be enduring compromised health for years without knowing it.
Some cases of NCGS or Gluten Related Disease (GRD) may ultimately prove to be celiac disease once better forms of diagnosis are discovered, but for now it exists as its own diagnosis and phenomenon. Please note that both Celiac Disease and a Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity should be treated the same: both require the elimination of all traces of gluten from the diet.
Update: As of March 2011, researchers now know that a non-celiac gluten sensitivity exists entirely separately from celiac disease. While it is a form of intolerance to gluten, intestinal biopsies indicate different gene expression and villi damage than what occurs with celiac disease.
This still doesn’t mean all cases where someone tests negative for celiac sprue disease are cases of this new gluten sensitivity. In some cases, people could suffer from latent celiac disease and test positive several years after the initial negative test.
It’s possible that NCGS is the most accurate single health condition for the phrase gluten allergy symptoms, as it is neither a wheat allergy nor a formal, clinical diagnosis of celiac disease. It is often the heart of gluten allergy symptoms in adults. This is because adults sometimes grow accustomed to a certain level of health and physical discomfort and don’t proactively pursue a diagnosis. In contrast when gluten intolerance in children appears, attentive and responsible parents often do everything possible to address it.
So what are gluten allergy symptoms anyway? If you are experiencing an allergic reaction to wheat, the symptoms will likely manifest themselves through hives, rashes, or intestinal distress like bloating or diarrhea. However, symptoms like fatigue, brain fog and extended irritable bowel syndrome are often more likely to indicate a gluten intolerance. More severe but usually delayed skin reactions, like Dermatitis Herpetiformis, often often indicatesceliac disease as well.
Wide Misuse of the Phrase “Gluten Allergy” Online
My use of this phrase in this lesson is an attempt to find a use for the overly used and misused term. When you are researching wheat allergies and gluten intolerance, please note that in most cases you will likely see the phrase “gluten allergy” used by sources you shouldn’t trust.
In fact, when I search on Google using the exact phrase “gluten allergy symptoms,” several of the sites that returned at the top of the results provided blatant contradictions and even serious misinformation. In those cases I suggest you double-check with reputable sites such as the Mayo Clinic before you accept those websites’ suggestions or conclusions.
If you are diagnosed with celiac disease or you know someone who has been diagnosed, please take gluten intolerance seriously. Eliminate gluten entirely from your diet immediately and be vigilant. To help you get started I have a lesson called The Gluten Free Pantry, which helps you learn how to replace this pervasive protein composite in your everyday meals and recipes.
Legitimate Online Resources
For a more thorough and scientific look at the Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity phenomenon, try Dr. Scott Lewey’s excellent article on Celiac.com:
And here’s a short video of a well-known doctor and immunologist describing the difference between a wheat allergy and celiac disease (which should help you understand why I’m not fond of the phrase “gluten allergy”):
I hope this lesson helps you better understand why the term “gluten allergy” is not only technically incorrect, but potentially harmful as it confuses a complex, serious and nuanced health matter.