Gluten Sensitivity: A Range of Forms and Affects

1 of 7 in Series: The Essentials of Celiac Disease

Gluten sensitivity is a physical sensitivity to gluten. The condition is not easy to define, because these sensitivities come in a variety of forms. Think of gluten sensitivities as falling somewhere on a spectrum, ranging from allergy to disease.

  • Allergy: Actually, there’s no such a thing as an allergy to gluten, but you can have allergies to the things that contain gluten: wheat, rye, and barley. In fact, wheat is one of the most common allergens.

    These allergies are just like other typical food allergies — the same as an allergy to strawberries or shellfish, for example. They’re all responses to a food allergen, and the reaction that someone has to those foods varies from person to person and from one food to another.

  • Gluten sensitivity and intolerance: Often used interchangeably, the terms sensitivity and intolerance basically mean that your body doesn’t react well to a particular food and you should avoid it. People who fall in this range have a response to gluten very similar to a celiac response and may indeed have celiac disease — maybe. Here’s where things get fuzzy:

    • Some people diagnosed with gluten sensitivity actually have celiac disease, but their testing was done improperly or was insufficient to yield conclusive results.

    • Some people may not have celiac disease — yet — but if they continue to eat gluten, may develop it.

    • Some people may not have celiac disease and may never get it. But they do have sensitivity to gluten, and their health improves on a gluten-free diet.

    If you test negative for celiac disease, yet your symptoms go away on a gluten-free diet, you probably have some form of gluten sensitivity. (Or, you may have celiac disease, with a false negative test result.)

  • Celiac disease: Celiac disease is a common (yet often misdiagnosed) genetic intolerance to gluten. Triggered by eating gluten, the immune system responds by attacking the gluten molecule, and in so doing, it also attacks your body cells. This autoimmune response results in damage to the small intestine, which can cause poor absorption of nutrients.

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The Essentials of Celiac Disease

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