If you experience discomfort, pain, or allergy symptoms from eating foods containing wheat or gluten, you may wonder whether you have a gluten intolerance, celiac disease, or wheat allergies.
Here’s a confusing fact: People who suffer from either gluten intolerance or celiac disease often experience the exact same symptoms, mainly bloating, diarrhea, and stomach pain. People with wheat allergies experience similar AND different reactions.
So, how can you know which you have? Let’s examine the three conditions to better understand their similarities and differences. But before we dive in, let’s address what gluten is (it’s going to come up a lot in the intolerance and celiac sections).
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a compound protein found in many grains, such as:
It’s a binding agent that helps give certain foods their shape and elastic-like texture. Because of gluten’s binding properties, wheat flour is also used for things like roux and is added to soups, sauces, salad dressings, and other products to help thicken them up.
Because these grains are so versatile and gluten’s binding properties are so effective, it can be found in many foods and food products, including:
- Baked goods
- Beer & certain liquors
- Sauces and dressings
For people with celiac disease or gluten intolerance, their systems respond negatively to the presence of gluten and cause adverse reactions.
About Gluten Intolerance
Neither celiac disease nor a wheat allergy, gluten intolerance is an issue in which patients experience painful, uncomfortable reactions to eating foods that contain gluten. Roughly 6% of the US population suffers from gluten intolerance, the majority of which are women. While some patients are born with the intolerance, others can develop it later in life.
Gluten Intolerance Causes
The verdict is still out on what causes people to develop a gluten intolerance.
Some research indicates that gluten-sensitive patients are actually sensitive to a particular carbohydrate found in the same foods you would find gluten, like breads, baked goods, and pastas. Their bodies do not absorb the carb as they should and experience intolerance-like symptoms.
Different research shows that wheat specifically impacts the lining of some patients’ digestive systems. While the lining prevents bacteria from leaking out of your intestines, people with gluten intolerance have a lining that doesn’t operate properly when in contact with wheat, causing bacteria to reach areas they shouldn’t and cause inflammation.
Gluten Intolerance Symptoms
No matter how or why a person has a gluten intolerance, it is definitely not a food allergy. A wheat allergy causes symptoms like swelling, tingling, respiratory trouble, or even anaphylaxis. A gluten intolerance, however, can cause reactions like:
- Acid reflux
- Concentration issues
- Joint pain
- Nausea and vomiting
- Skin irritation
- Stomach pain
Some only experience one or two of these symptoms, while others can expect to undergo many, if not all, of them.
For certain patients, intolerance reactions flare up quickly after eating gluten and can last between a few hours and a few days.
Treatment for Gluten Intolerance
There’s no cure for gluten intolerance, but there is relief in a gluten-free diet. Some people can simply reduce their gluten intake and see their symptoms fade away. Others find it more effective to avoid gluten entirely.
In some cases, adding a probiotic to your diet may allow you to keep consuming gluten while reducing the effects of it. Some medical professionals even suggest adding certain enzymes to help your system handle it better.
About Celiac Disease
Celiac is a much more severe condition than gluten intolerance. Celiac is an autoimmune disorder triggered by even the smallest amount of gluten and can cause serious complications. When a patient with celiac disease ingests even a crumb of a wheat, barley, or rye product, their immune system will respond so that it attacks their small intestine. This attack damages the intestinal lining, especially the villi, which promote food absorption.
Roughly 1% of the US population is affected by celiac disease, but more than 35% carry the celiac-causing gene. People with this gene can develop celiac at some point in life.
As mentioned, celiac disease is a genetic issue. This gene is hereditary, meaning celiac runs in families. If a parent has celiac disease, there is a 10% chance that their child will develop it.
Celiac symptoms can be similar to intolerance symptoms. The only difference is the severity of them. While someone with gluten intolerance can experience symptoms for a few hours or days, celiac patients can experience amplified symptoms for weeks at a time.
The extensive list of symptoms includes:
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Joint or bone pain
- Leg numbness
- Muscle cramps
- Skin rashes
- Stomach pain and swelling
- Weakening of your teeth’s enamel
- Weight loss
Children who develop celiac disease also grow at a slower, more abnormal rate.
If left untreated or unmanaged, celiac disease can lead to additional complications or health problems like:
- Bone weakness
- Cancer development
- Heart disease
- Organ malfunctions or failures
Treatment for Celiac Disease
Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet. Those with celiac can experience the above symptoms after digesting even a morsel of gluten.
About Wheat Allergies
Let’s veer away from gluten-specific conditions and talk about the wheat allergy. As the name suggests, a wheat allergy is an allergic reaction to wheat. Many people confuse a wheat allergy with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, but they are different. While gluten intolerance and celiac disease involve the digestive system, a wheat allergy involves the body’s overall response when the immune system encounters wheat. The immune system will produce too many antibodies, or histamine, leading to symptoms you expect from an allergic reaction.
Wheat Allergy Causes
Wheat is obviously the leading cause of a wheat allergy, but really, it’s the albumin, globulin, prolamin, and glutelin proteins that trigger the immune system and cause a reaction. Because some of these proteins are found in other plants, many wheat allergy patients can experience allergies when exposed to other grains like oats, barley, and rye.
Wheat allergies tend to run in families, and many patients only experience allergies in childhood. The tendency is for patients to outgrow a wheat allergy by the time they reach their teens. However, others can suffer from allergies well into adulthood or develop allergies at some point in adulthood.
Wheat Allergy Symptoms
Because a wheat allergy is the result of the immune system producing too much histamine, allergy symptoms are similar to many other food allergy reactions:
- Excessive coughing
- Facial swelling
- Nasal congestion
- Nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
- Rashes and hives
- Uneasiness throughout the body
- Wheezing and other breathing issues
Patients with gluten intolerance and celiac disease also can experience nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and skin rashes, but all the others are unique to a wheat allergy. Wheat allergy patients are also susceptible to experiencing anaphylaxis.
Treatment for a Wheat Allergy
In addition to avoiding wheat flours and products containing wheat, treatment to reduce allergy symptoms can include:
- Over-the-counter or prescription antihistamines
- EpiPens for anaphylactic patients
If you suffer from wheat allergy symptoms, talk to the allergy specialists at Langford Allergy.
Dr. Langford and our team offer thorough allergy testing and can help determine if you struggle with allergies triggered by wheat. Schedule an appointment or call our office to learn more: 478-787-4728