What Is a Gluten Allergy?
A gluten allergy is a sensitivity to, or intolerance of, gluten. Gluten is a protein group found in grains such as wheat, barley, and rye, that are used to make bread, cereals, pastas, pastries, and other baked goods. Medical studies suggest that as much as 13 percent of the human population may have some form of gluten sensitivity. A much smaller percentage, about one percent, have the most severe version of gluten intolerance, called celiac disease. The primary means of treating a gluten allergy is the adoption of a gluten-free diet, which reduces or eliminates the body’s exposure to this common element of cereal grains.
Gluten allergies are marked by a wide range of symptoms, many related to digestion and some serious or debilitating. If you or a loved one is dealing with a gluten sensitivity, see your Baptist Health physician for consultation and treatment.
What Are Gluten Allergy Symptoms?
Among the symptoms associated with gluten allergies are:
- Abdominal stress or pain
- Constipation, diarrhea, gas, and strong-smelling bowel movements
- Anemia, fatigue, and feelings of weakness
- Weight loss
- Skin rashes or blisters
- Joint pain
- Numbness in the limbs
- Nervousness or anxiety
- Grogginess or “brain fog”
- Depression or melancholy
These symptoms are intensified in cases of celiac disease. The latter is an autoimmune condition, in which gluten causes the body’s immune system to turn on the small intestines. Celiac disease increases the risk of certain cancers and is associated with other medical conditions, such as type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, and Addison’s disease, an adrenal gland disorder.
What Causes a Gluten Allergy?
As the name suggests, gluten allergies are the body’s immune reaction to the presence of glutens in the digestive system. This explanation is not without controversy, however. The various forms of gluten allergy have led some researchers to argue that FODMAPs, hard-to-absorb carbohydrates present in some grains, are the real culprit. Some people also suffer from a wheat allergy, which is treated as a medical condition that is distinct from gluten intolerance.
Celiac disease has a genetic as well as an environmental origin. Consuming gluten triggers the body’s attack on the villi, hair-like projections found in the small-intestine walls. The villi absorb nutrients from the food you eat but are rendered ineffective by the immune system.
How Is a Gluten Allergy Diagnosed?
Gluten allergies are diagnosed by a process of elimination. Your physician will take the following steps to rule out other medical conditions, leaving gluten intolerance as the best explanation for the symptoms that you’re experiencing:
- Medical history and exam: Your doctor will begin by examining and recording your symptoms. He or she will ask you about your personal and family medical history, looking for potential risk factors, such as a blood relative with celiac disease, type 1 diabetes, or an autoimmune disorder.
- Antibody tests: The presence of certain antibodies in the blood may indicate celiac disease. Their absence makes it less likely to be the cause of any gluten-related symptoms.
- Biopsy: A second test for celiac disease is a laboratory examination of a tiny sample from your small intestines, called a biopsy. If the villi in the sample are undamaged, it means that there is no evidence for celiac disease.
- Immune-allergy test: Your physician may also administer a wheat-allergy test.
The ruling-out of other possibilities makes a gluten-sensitivity diagnosis more feasible. The final step in this process is the implementation of an elimination diet, in which foods with gluten are removed from your menu, to see if there is a corresponding improvement in symptoms.
How Is a Gluten Allergy Treated?
If gluten allergies are caused by gluten, then gluten avoidance is critical to health. Since gluten is introduced to the body in food, and there are no immunizations for it, the only real treatment is a lifelong gluten-free diet. This means forgoing foods, such as wheat-based breads and pastas, that consist of gluten, while adopting alternatives that contain some of the same nutrients as the major Mideastern grains. Examples of the latter include gluten-free grains, such as millet, and pseudocereals, such as amaranth and quinoa (chenopods that mimic grains).
A professional dietician can help you create a gluten-free diet with food items that are varied, healthy, and enjoyable to eat.
When Should I See a Physician for a Gluten Allergy?
If you develop serious, diet-related symptoms, or have reason to suspect the onset of celiac disease, seek medical help at once. The caring professionals at Baptist Health will be sensitive to your concerns. Schedule an appointment with a Baptist Health physician.
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