Chances are, you’ve noticed a growing stock of gluten-free foods at the grocery store. But unless you have celiac disease—the infamous disorder that often triggers stomachaches, headaches, and fatigue—you probably haven’t given those products much thought.
You see, people with celiac disease become sick when they ingest gluten, a protein typically found in wheat, barley, and rye. However, a growing number of experts suspect that you don’t have to have the full-blown disease in order to experience a similar, milder set of symptoms after eating gluten. If these post-meal headaches and stomach issues sound familiar, you could simply be “gluten sensitive.”
It’s estimated that 18 million Americans suffer from gluten sensitivity, according to estimates from the University of Maryland’s Center for Celiac Research, although it’s difficult to be sure. Unfortunately, the only way to determine if you’re sensitive to gluten is to cut it out completely and then see how you feel—unlike celiac disease, there’s no test for it. That’s just one reason why doctors have been so keen to find out the differences between the two conditions.
A new study from the University of Maryland makes considerable progress to that end. The research shows that not only does gluten sensitivity exist, but that it’s also quite different from celiac disease—at least, in terms of how it works in your body.
In the study, Alessio Fasano, M.D., and his colleagues started by looking in more than 100 people’s guts. The goal: To determine if there were physiological differences between being sensitive to gluten versus having celiac disease.
After taking blood samples and intestinal biopsies, the researchers found that there was a different reaction in the immune system for both groups. Specifically, when people with gluten sensitivity ingested gluten, their body reacted in the same way it would for a short-term illness such as a cold: Their bodie rallied their defenses to fight off the foreign invader, which triggered a number of short-term symptoms.
But it was a bit different for those with celiac disease. In this case, their immune systems reacted much more severely. When they consumed gluten, much stronger defenses were struck up; their bodies literally turned on themselves and started to attack the tissue in their small intestines. Because the tissue of their small intestines was often under attack—whenever they ate gluten—their intestinal linings were damaged. Specifically, the intestinal cell walls had gaps in them, leading the researchers to conclude that people with celiac disease have a so-called “leaky gut.” This wasn’t the case for people with gluten sensitivity, however—their guts were normal.
The new research shows that the two disorders are completely different on the molecular level, despite the fact that the symptoms are similar, says Fasano.
The findings should prove very helpful for doctors hoping to develop a fast-and-hard test for gluten sensitivity. In the future, experts can offer up a more confident treatment plan for patients who suspect that gluten makes them sick.