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What is Gluten? Understanding Gluten’s Impact on Health

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Exploring Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity, and Wheat Allergies

What is gluten protein?

Simply put, gluten is a protein that is found in certain grains, and its presence has been linked to a range of health conditions. In this article, we will explore what gluten is, how it affects the body.

The term ‘gluten free’ is thrown around frequently these days. You see the word used in restaurants, grocery stores, and media outlets. You read it on food labels, advertisements, and all over the internet. Many of you may already be eating (and living) gluten free yourself, but many of you might still have some questions.

what is gluten and its impact on our health

There are millions of people out there that don’t quite fully understand what gluten is yet, or why it is better left out of our daily diets. Let’s explore the definition of gluten and why so many people are choosing to go gluten free.

What is gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye. It is what gives dough its elasticity and helps it to rise during baking. Gluten is made up of two main proteins – gliadin and glutenin – and is often referred to as a ‘sticky’ protein due to its ability to bind with other molecules.

Please note: While you may be researching and preparing to police your food for gluten moving forward, please be aware that you will also find gluten in thousands of household products. If you want to live a gluten free life, you will have to explore the ingredients of every product in your home, including things you might not expect, such as toothpaste and shampoo.

The Definition of Gluten

The reason for this is because gluten is often used as a binding agent in products, which happens to be how gluten received it’s name. (more on that below!) But first, let’s take a look at the definition of gluten…

1. Gluten is a general name for the proteins found in wheat (durum, emmer, spelt, farina, farro, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale. Gluten helps foods maintain their shape, acting as a glue that holds food together.
[Definition from, 2015]

Interestingly enough, when the term ‘gluten’ was coined in the seventeenth century, it was to label the sticky mass derived from combining flour and water. People back then had no idea that it’s a protein, or why that protein is so hard for people to digest. If you’d like to learn more about the etymology of the word gluten, you can read about it here.

Is gluten bad for me?

Gluten is not bad for everyone. Although, I believe time will tell that it is challenging for most. The reason it is becoming such a prevalent term in today’s society is because of an increased awareness (both among medical professionals and the general public) of the effects gluten has when consumed by someone with Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity.

What is Gluten? Is it bad for you?

What hasn’t been well understood until recent years is just how many people suffer from Celiac Disease or a serious degrees of gluten intolerance. There are many variations of this intolerance and there is also quite a bit of public confusion surrounding the difference between a wheat allergy and an autoimmune disease (in this case, Celiac Disease).

Interesting Facts About Gluten Intolerance and Celiac Disease:

  1. Celiac Disease Is More Common Than You Think
    According to recent studies, approximately 1% of the world’s population is affected by celiac disease. However, many cases go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed because the symptoms can vary greatly from person to person.
  2. Celiac Disease Can Develop at Any Age
    Although celiac disease is often diagnosed in childhood, it can develop at any age, from infancy to old age. People with a family history of the disease are at higher risk of developing it.
  3. Gluten Sensitivity Is Not Celiac Disease
    Gluten sensitivity or intolerance is a common condition that affects many people, but it is not the same as celiac disease. Unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity does not damage the small intestine.
  4. Celiac Disease Can Cause Many Symptoms
    Celiac disease can cause a wide range of symptoms, including diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, weight loss, anemia, fatigue, and skin rashes. In some cases, people with celiac disease may have no symptoms at all.
  5. There Is No Cure for Celiac Disease
    At present, there is no cure for celiac disease. The only effective treatment is a strict gluten-free diet, which means avoiding all foods that contain wheat, barley, and rye. Even small amounts of gluten can trigger symptoms and damage the small intestine.
  6. Celiac Disease Is Often Misdiagnosed
    Celiac disease is often misdiagnosed or overlooked because its symptoms can be similar to those of other conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), lactose intolerance, and Crohn’s disease. Therefore, it is important to get tested for celiac disease if you have persistent digestive symptoms.

Next, let’s break down the difference between someone with Celiac Disease, someone with a wheat allergy, and someone with gluten sensitivity. Individuals with ANY of the following would be best off avoiding gluten entirely, but there’s one type on this list that has a little more wiggle room than the rest.

The Difference Between Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity, and a Wheat Allergy

Celiac Disease

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease that is triggered by exposure (often ingestion) of gluten, the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. This leads to serious damage to the small intestine, specifically the villi, which are little finger-like projections that increase the surface area of the intestine for the absorption of digested food and nutrients. Damage to the villi keeps your body from properly digesting food. It’s estimated that 1% of people are affected by Celiac Disease, and that there are millions of Celiacs out there, moving through life undiagnosed.

Symptoms of Celiac Disease include: (sourced from

  • Anemia
  • Anxiety
  • Bloating or gas
  • Constipation
  • Delayed growth in children
  • Depression
  • Diarrhea
  • Discolored teeth
  • Fatigue/tiredness
  • Headaches or migraines
  • Infertility
  • Irritability
  • Itchy skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
  • Joint pain
  • Liver disease
  • Pale mouth sores
  • Poor weight gain
  • Thin bones
  • Tingling/numbness
celiac disease and small intestine damage villi

Wheat Allergy

A wheat allergy differs from Celiac Disease in that it is simply a body’s allergic reaction to a substance containing wheat. An allergy happens when your body’s immune system overreacts to something in its environment. Allergies can be triggered from both internal and external exposure to the allergen.

Someone with a wheat allergy might experience symptoms such as: (sourced from

  • Hives or skin rash
  • Nausea, stomach cramps, indigestion, vomiting or diarrhea
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Headaches
  • Asthma
  • Anaphylaxis (less common)

Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity is a bit more variable than the first two conditions discussed. Individuals with a gluten sensitivity often share many of the same symptoms as those with Celiac Disease, although without the severe intestinal damage that Celiacs suffer. Those with gluten sensitivities often experience non-GI symptoms like joint pain and inflammation, headaches, brain fog, and numbness in the extremities. Theses symptoms are not always immediate and can appear up to several days after ingesting gluten.

Gastrointestinal Symptoms:

  • Stomach pain or bloating
  • Heartburn
  • Nausea
  • Acid Reflux (GERD)
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Vomiting
  • Gas and/or cramps
  • Irritable Bowel Syndrome

Non-gastrointestinal Symptoms:

  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Weight Loss or Weight Gain
  • Irritability and behavioral changes
  • Aching joints
  • Depression
  • Headaches
  • Itchy skin, rash, or hives
  • Canker sores
  • Fat in the stools (due to poor digestion)
  • Slow infant and child growth

Varying Degrees Of Gluten Sensitivity

The gluten protein is very difficult (and impossible for some) to digest. When your body fails to break down and process gluten it causes inflammation, dis-ease and (in the case of a Celiac) destruction of the inner lining of the small intestine. This chronic digestive disorder also leads to the malabsorption of minerals and nutrients.

The Difference Between Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity, and a Wheat Allergy

Individuals dealing solely with gluten sensitivity (as opposed to an allergy or autoimmune disease), may have varying levels of intolerance. Some may tolerate small amounts of gluten in infrequent doses, and others may experience very mild symptoms that keep gluten accessible to their digestive system in moderation. (This is not me. )

Those who have zero ability to digest gluten properly are likely battling an increasingly common auto-immune disease called Celiac Disease. Those who are simply gluten sensitive may still be able to consume small amounts of the protein without any extreme symptoms. However, those with Celiac Disease or wheat allergies must avoid gluten entirely. (That’s me!)

Confusion Around Gluten Intolerance

Part of the reason that gluten intolerance has been so poorly understood for so long is that many of its symptoms are very generic and easily misattributed to other illnesses. One of the most common misdiagnoses for gluten-caused gastrointestinal related symptoms is Irritable Bowl Syndrome (IBS). Western medicine doctors are definitely behind the curve when it comes to properly recognizing and diagnosing Celiac Disease and gluten sensitivity.

gluten sensitivity and gluten intolerance

Eastern medicine practices, on the other hand, look at the body as a holistic system. They acknowledge diet as an integral component of health. If you suspect you may be struggling with gluten sensitivity or Celiac Disease and desire a consultation with a physician, I would recommend researching your chosen doctor carefully to avoid misdiagnosis. Naturopaths are a good place to start. Elimination diets are also an excellent measure of intolerance and they can be completed without the help (or cost) of a doctor.

Gluten Related Disorders

As you can see, gluten intolerance is more complicated than most realize. If you are feeling a little overwhelmed by the varying levels and reasons for gluten sensitivity, the chart below might help you visualize the differences between Celiac Disease, gluten sensitivity, and wheat allergies. In other words, this chart is for the visual learners!

Where do you fall within the chart below? Drop a comment to introduce yourself and let us know if you’re suffering from any of the three gluten disorders discussed here. We’re all in this together!

what is gluten


P.S. Like what I do for the gluten free beer community? Consider buying me a beer for my efforts! ;)

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