What Is Gluten And Gluten Intolerance?

Are You Gluten Sensitive?

digestive problemsWhat is gluten and gluten intolerance is a question I’ve been asked a hundred times or more. This page was written for those who want to know a lot more about this topic. It is well researched and contains a great amount of detailed information, I trust you will enjoy it. Consumer interest in gluten free eating in Australia and NZ is no doubt on the rise. But what is gluten, and why gluten free? These questions and many more I will answer in this informative article on a topic which sure to be of interest to many who are interested in this dietary approach.

I first started to alert patients about gluten and gluten free diets in my clinic almost twenty years ago, these were the days when those who approached their supermarket to ask for gluten-free goods were told to go to health-food shops and offered a loaf of bread which I called “the brick”. In those days you were lucky to get one (very expensive and totally not fit to eat) loaf of bread which had to be especially ordered in and the choice was very limited. But that was in the early 90’s, and what about today? You can get gluten free goods almost anywhere you shop. Many cafes and restaurants have extensive gluten-free menus and even supermarkets sell many gluten free items.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found mainly in wheat, rye, spelt, triticale and barley. Gluten causes those who have celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder, serious health problems. Celiac disease affects nearly one in every 133 people, but gluten-free diets and gluten avoidance is explored by far more people today than just celiac. A very interesting survey conducted in America revealed that only 5% of gluten-free foods were actually purchased by those with celiac disease, whereas 39% of gluten-free products were purchased by those who wanted to improve their digestive health in general.

The main property of gluten is its stickiness. Do you doubt the stickiness of gluten? Just get some white flour and mix it with water and voila, you have just created a sticky glue-like substance of gluing paper to wood, metal or many other substances. It is also a great wallpaper glue! Dough is quite “gluey” because of the gluten it contains. It is this property of stickiness that makes gluten so valuable in baking. It helps stick the food together, and gives a pleasing texture to the baked items. Wheat gluten is unique in its ability to form sticky dough and thus produce a loaf of bread.

Articles on Gluten Intolerance and Celiac Disease

gluten_free_breadIs Gluten Really A Health Concern?

Absolutely, and for some it can mean dire straits. Recent research has found that gluten is a potentially toxic substance*, especially to the gut, brain and to a person’s nervous system. Many people will have no issue through life with gluten until they develop a condition known as Leaky Gut Syndrome which can occur after antibiotics or other similar event which causes a major stress to the digestive, immune and nervous system. One of the problems with gluten is that we do not break it down very well in your intestinal tract. Your digestive system cannot fully digest it, therefore fragments of gluten may easily be absorbed into your body in an unchanged form, which challenge the immune system. This can then start an immune reaction with your body making antibodies against gluten, which in turn can cause damage to your body’s organs such as your brain and nervous system. Even if your body does not produce antibodies to gluten, unmetabolised gluten can cause damage to your organs. To more fully understand this mechanism, please read our page on Leaky Gut Syndrome. There are also various 5 Tests To Determine Digestive Function.

There are foods that cause inflammation in the body (red meats, alcohol, and sugar for example) and there are foods that can reduce inflammation (like turmeric or omega 3 fatty acids). Gluten is considered an inflammatory food, and inflammation is today considered the root cause of many chronic diseases. Gluten activates the immune system, and anytime the immune system is activated there is most always inflammation produced, so it is imperative that we try to reduce our consumption of pro-inflammatory foods if we want to reduce our risk of chronic ill health like heart disease or cancer. I’m not saying for one moment that “wheat and bread cause cancer and heart disease”, but what I am saying is that the protein called gluten is a pro-inflammatory food and this inflammatory potential can lead to a continual long-term low grade inflammatory action in the body. And this action (when coupled with nutritional deficiencies, stress, alcohol, pharmaceutical drugs, toxins, etc) can lead to premature and unnecessary disease.

Inflammation is part of the complex biological response of vascular tissues to a harmful stimuli, such as bacteria, viruses, parasites, damaged cells, or different cellular irritants. Inflammation is not “bad’ in itself, it is a protective attempt by the body to remove the injurious stimuli and to initiate a powerful healing process. However, chronic and uncontrolled inflammation can cause damage to cells, tissue and organs and result in a range of diseases from autoimmune diseases like Celiac Disease and rheumatoid arthritis, to obesity and heart disease.

Chronic inflammation can have many effects on our bodies. One effect is that it triggers our bodies to produce the stress hormone called cortisol. Since cortisol is also one of the major modulators of our immune function, this excess cortisol effectively suppresses our immune response. When cortisol production becomes abnormally high, our hormonal and immune systems are adversely affected. While elevated cortisol suppresses our immune response, it also causes a catabolic/breakdown state to exist in our body and symptoms of adrenal fatigue will eventually appear: fatigue, depression, anxiety, loss of libido, insomnia, multiple allergies, accelerated ageing, and frequent illness. Other result of chronic inflammation can be traced to destructive cell-
signalling chemicals known as cytokines that contribute to many degenerative diseases. You may like to read Dr. Wilson’s most informative article on immunity called Your Immune System.

* the definition of a toxic substance: Any substance that can cause acute or chronic injury to the human body. or which is suspected of being able to cause diseases or injury under some conditions.

Reasons for Buying Gluten-Free*

Digestive health                     39%
Nutritional value                     33%
To help me lose weight            25%
Other health reasons              21%
Desire for healthy skin             20%
Alleviate joint pain                   18%
Mental or emotional health        13%
Alleviate stress                       12%
Detoxification                         10%
Depression                             9%
Asthma                                 6%
Celiac                                    5%

* Hartman Group Survey 1,730 US adults July 2009


But How Gluten Free are They?

When people say they are gluten free, how strict do they really adhere to eating gluten free? The results of an American survey conducted in July 2009 may surprise you, and I have no reason to believe that the statistics in Australia and NZ would be any different. This tells me that most people who follow a gluten free diet do it to improve their health, especially to improve their digestive health, and not because they are celiac.

61% adhered to a gluten free diet up to 25% of the time.
18% adhered to a gluten free diet from 26% to 50% of the time.
10% adhered to a gluten free diet from 51% to 75% of the time.
11% adhered to a gluten free diet from 75% to 100% of the time.

Dr. Rodney Ford

Dr Rodney FordThe gluten syndrome is a term which was originally coined by New Zealand Dr. Rodney Ford, who is is known as the “the gluten expert”. Dr. Ford is the director of The Children’s Clinic, in Christchurch, New Zealand. His clinical career has been spent investigating and helping families who have food intolerances and allergies, especially gluten.

  • After he conceived the concept, Dr. Ford wrote the book about it.  He uses the name  “gluten syndrome” to describe the serious effects of gluten on the brain, the gut and the skin and asserts that gluten causes us symptoms through its damage to the nerves and brain. Dr, Ford has written over a hundred scientific papers, and ten books, including “The Gluten Syndrome”.  Dr Ford has been involved in ground-breaking work in the areas of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS), breastfeeding, infant caffeine exposure, food allergy and gluten-sensitivity. Are you sensitive to gluten? Dr. Ford mentions that it is important to do these three things:

1- Did you get a gluten antibody test? (IgG-gliadin antibody) That helps with the diagnosis.

2 – If you feel better gluten-free, and get sick/unwell when you eat gluten: then you are gluten sensitive. The diagnosis is made by your own experience (that is made by elimination & challenge). It is not exclusively a blood test diagnosis.

3 – The blood tests help with diagnosis (checking for gut damage [celiac disease], confirming gluten antibody responses, checking nutritional status). But if you have “normal” tests, this does not rule out gluten-sensitivity … this is known as The Gluten Syndrome.

The Gluten Syndrome

The Gluten Syndrome is a rather broad term which includes all kinds of sensitivities to the protein called gluten, ranging from very mild and hardly noticeable right through to very severe. This syndrome is a cluster of symptoms that are experienced by people who react to eating foods or drinks containing gluten. About one in ten people are affected by gluten syndrome, but unfortunately only a few are aware that they even have an issue with gluten. Mainstream medicine is slowly coming around, and for too many years those who presented to their doctors with “funny tummies” were either sent away after having been diagnosed with terms as irritable bowel syndrome, reflux, “stomach migraines” or appendix or gallbladder dysfunction.

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance is a rather broad term which includes all kinds of sensitivities to gluten ranging from mild to severe. Only a small amount of people will actually test positive to the celiac disease test, and are true celiacs (less than 1% of the population). True celiacs generally find out early in life as they are at the severe end of the gluten intolerance spectrum. I have found that many people however are not at this extreme level of intolerance, and can suffer from years because tests are inconclusive.

Gluten Intolerance or Celiac Disease?

You can read a lot more about Celiac Disease on our page entitled Celiac Disease Means Gluten Free as well as Going Gluten Free and 8 Tips For The Celiac.

celiac-disease-villi-normalCeliac disease (CD) is an auto-immune condition, meaning it is a condition in which a person’s immune system recognises parts of its digestive system as foreign and begins to attack it. CD occurs when the proteins in gluten trigger your immune system to over react, producing antibodies to the protein. Over time, these immune reactions by way of the antibodies can cause major wear and tear affecting the tiny microscopic finger like projections in the small bowel (particularly the duodenum, the first part of the small bowel) in a process called villous atrophy. These microscopic villi are vital to good health, because it is here that the digestive process really occurs, it is here where the “rubber meets the road” and the absorption of dietary proteins, carbohydrates and fats occur. The villi trap food particles as they pass through the digestion. As CD slowly destroys these micro-villi, you become less and less able to fully process any nutrition from your foods. Over time, this process causes malabsorption leading to a myriad of health disorders such as delayed development and failure to thrive in children, and even conditions such as anaemia and osteoporosis in those who are older. If left undiagnosed, CD can have serious consequences to a person’s health.

The Link Between Celiac Disease, Gluten Sensitivity and Irritable Bowel Syndrome


gluten CDThis diagram is very interesting as it shows a connection between celiac disease, gluten sensitivity and irritable bowel syndrome. An interesting paper was recently published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology* regarding this topic. An article published last year  in the same journal reported on the need to perform genetic testing in all patients with IBS to determine if gluten sensitivity is part of the disease equation I have often seen a connection with IBS and gluten sensitivity in many patients over the years in my clinic, and when I suggested that the patient follow a strict no-gluten approach have been amazed at how many improve. The hardest part is getting the patient to understand that it is necessary to at least give this approach a good try (4 – 6 weeks) before deciding that gluten is not really an issue with their IBS.
* Source: Is Gluten Sensitivity a “No Man’s Land” or a “Fertile Crescent” for Research? Alex J Ball, Marios Hadjivassiliou and David S Sanders  Am J Gastroenterol 2010; 105:222–223.

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance is more difficult to diagnose in a patient, it has a slower onset than CD and may be much more difficulty to pick up due to the vague and broad range of symptoms some patients present with. What you will find is that their blood tests will come back negative to CD, as there are no antibodies to gluten produced making a practitioner believe that gluten is not the issue here. Consequently, these people are often poorly diagnosed and wander from one doctor to another naturopath looking for an answer to the poor health question which has plagued them, sometimes for many years. I have always found that the most accurate way to correctly identify if a person has a gluten intolerance, is to place them on a strict food elimination diet.

The incidence of gluten intolerance may be as high as 1 in 10, some studies have estimated, and with celiac disease the ratio is as high as 1 in 133 of the population. Both gluten intolerance and celiac disease symptoms can be greatly exacerbated by emotional stress, infections, surgery, pregnancy and childbirth. There is no doubt in my mind that all people who experience gluten intolerance will experience a slightly different set of symptoms, and with no clear cut pattern of dysfunction, patients are often misdiagnosed or labelled as having irritable bowel syndrome.

The Signs and Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance

It is important to remember that the signs and symptoms in those with gluten intolerance can vary widely, but here is a list (certainly not complete, just my experiences in the clinic)

Aching Joints
Aching Muscles
Behavioural Changes, Mood Swings
Bloating and Flatulence
Chronic Iron Deficiency or Anaemia
Cramps, Tingling or Numbness
Depression, Irritability
Difficulty in Thinking Clearly
Difficulty Concentrating
Exhaustion, Lethargy or Fatigue
Eczema, Skin Rashes, Dermatitis
Gastric Reflux or Abdominal Cramps
Uncomfortable Tummy
Irregular Menstrual Cycle
Insomnia, Restless Sleep
Loss of Feeling in Hands or Feet
Low Immune Function
Malnutrition, Stunted Growth in Children
Mouth Ulcers Recurring
Nausea (Low-Grade)
Reduced Sensation of Feeling in either Face or Entire Body
Runny Nose, Nasal Congestion
Weakness – Muscles or Joints

As you can see there are many and varied symptoms and illnesses triggered by gluten reactions which is why Gluten Intolerance is so hard to diagnose. Of course gluten is not always the cause of these symptoms and illnesses but most people with Gluten Intolerance have repeatedly sought help and advice from medical professionals, but have found no relief from or solutions to the cause of their ill-health.

How To Diagnose Gluten Intolerance

Since the 1960’s the normal method of testing for Celiac Disease is to perform a small biopsy of the intestinal wall to see if there is damage to the villi of the lining. If there was no damage, a negative result for Celiac Disease was given. Recently, researchers discovered that people with Celiac Disease have higher than normal levels of certain auto antibodies in their blood, and to confirm CD you really want the bowel biopsy and the blood test to be positive. Antibodies are protective proteins produced by your immune system in response to substances that the body perceives to be threatening. And auto-antibodies are highly specific immune proteins that react against the body’s own molecules or tissues. These form the basis for an auto-immune disease like CD.

To diagnose Celiac Disease, physicians will usually test blood to measure levels of:

  • Immunoglobulin A (IgA)
  • anti-tissue transglutaminase (tTGA)
  • IgA anti-endomysium antibodies (AEA)

If the tests and symptoms suggest Celiac Disease, the doctor will perform a small bowel biopsy. During the biopsy, the doctor removes a tiny piece of tissue from the small intestine to check for damage to the villi. This test is usually performed by way of an endoscopy.  Then if damage is found, a diagnosis of Celiac Disease given. There is only one problem here, these methods of testing have one main problem; they miss those people who have Non-Celiac Gluten Intolerance (NCGI) because there will be no real problems with the small villi in the small intestine, and the patient will be seen as NOT having any real issues with gluten, when in fact they can still be sensitive even with a negative biopsy.

Elimination Diet

Gluten intolerance sufferers generally don’t have damage to their villi of their intestinal lining and can often have normal or only slightly raised antibodies levels. Another problem with this method of diagnosis is that up to 50% of people with gluten intolerance have no digestive signs or symptoms! Some sufferers only have neurological, brain or skin symptoms, so often gluten is not even considered as a potential cause of their problems. Gluten sensitivity is therefore likely to be a missed diagnosis without a high degree of suspicion by the treating physician. I have seen such patients labelled as “hypochondriac” or as having irritable bowel syndrome (a very common diagnosis for the gluten intolerant patient).

There most effective and least invasive method of finding if there is gluten intolerance is by way of an elimination diet. This is when gluten is totally excluded from the diet, and it makes perfectly good sense to me. The patient avoids all forms of gluten entirely, and sometimes (but certainly not every time) the results can be very dramatic, with an improvement at times being noted after a mere 24 hours!  Improvement in symptoms and overall well-being is in most cases however noticed within a couple of days to a week, but certainly not always. It may take several weeks for the accumulated gluten to be cleared from the body.

The Treatment of Gluten Intolerance

The only real and effective treatment for Gluten Intolerance is totally elimination of gluten from the diet. This is not always as easy as it sounds as gluten is hidden in many processed products such as soy sauce, gravies, soup mixes, sauces, ice-cream and even bacon and sausages. Learning to read food labels and being aware of possible gluten additions to food is vital if you really want to go gluten-free. Special care is necessary when checking product ingredient lists since gluten comes in many forms; vegetable proteins and starch, modified food starch (when derived from wheat instead of maize), malt flavouring, and even glucose syrup. Many ingredients contain wheat or barley derivatives and although many foods contain gluten, it is not always included in ingredients lists. This lack of inclusion is often because gluten is not used in the actual formulation of the product, but in the preparation (or manufacturing) of listed ingredients. One example is the dusting of the conveyor belts in the production facilities with gluten products to prevent the foods from sticking during processing. You must be very careful with processed or mixed foods for this reason. You can read a lot more about the importance with regard to foods that are labelled “may contain” in our Celiac Disease article.

The main thing I’d like you to bear in mind is this: everybody who is intolerant to gluten will be on a scale from low to very high on the reactivity side. Some folk can tolerate a piece of bread here or there, but for others, even minuscule amounts can cause a major reaction. So even having it in the house for others can cause contamination with for example cutting boards, plates, etc. In extreme cases, you may even need to replace your toaster, for example, to completely clear the house of all traces of gluten.

Also be aware that you may suffer withdrawal symptoms, as we are often addicted to the foods we are allergic to. These can range from fairly mild to severe – flu like feelings, headaches, etc. This should pass within 3-6 days and you should start feeling better.

Once you understand where gluten is found it becomes much easier. With time, identifying sources of gluten will become second nature to you. Despite the restriction of a gluten-free diet, you can still eat a healthy, well balanced diet that has plenty of variety. There are many substitutes that can be used and delicious alternatives and as gluten is not biologically necessary for good health, a gluten-free diet is a healthier one with an expanded variety of foods in it.

How Did I Develop Gluten Intolerance?

Gluten intolerance – both NCGI and Celiac Disease is ‘in the family’, or genetically inherited, generally. Indicators are European or Anglo-Celtic ancestry. If you are gluten intolerant, then up to 10% of the immediate family may also be affected., even if they don’t have any symptoms. Some gluten intolerance is identified in children. But for others, it is not until much later in life that gluten intolerance is actually suspected. Frequently it is triggered by some life event like divorce, job loss or serious illness. Another reason gluten intolerance is more prevalent in today’s society is the increased use of gluten in all forms of food manufacturing. The amount of gluten in the Western diet continues to increase as bread has become a staple food and is even at the base of ‘the food pyramid’. The use of gluten as an additive in food processing to get the desired texture and consistency has also raised the amount of hidden gluten we
consume in our diet.


(1). Gastroenterology, Volume 128, Issue 4, Supplement l , Pages S57-S67, April 2005 The prevalence of celiac disease in average-risk and at-risk Western European populations: A systematic review
(2). Journal of Paediatric Gastroenterology & Nutrition: October 2006 – Volume 43 – Issue 4 – pp E65-E66    Gluten Reactions: Ten Times the Celiac Problem. Ford, Rodney P.
(3). http://ww-w.easy-immune-health.com/non-celiac-gluten-intolerance.html
(4). International Journal of Obesity (2003) 27, S29-S34. doi: 10. 1038/sj.ijo.0802497
(5). Gastroenterology, Volume 115, Issue 6, Pages 1317-1321, December 1998
(6). http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/372737

Article Last Update: 15 July 2011

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Can gluten cause constipation if you are highly sensitive to it even if your blood tests show normal?

    • Hi Anne, I’m not convinced that gluten is the BIG issue today affecting milions of people. Many people who avoid gluten say they feel “much better” for it, but I’ll bet they have made several other diet and lifestyle changes at the same time – like walking more, drinking less alcohol and more water, cutting out junk foods, eating lighter and healthier, getting to bed earlier, etc. Gluten is being falsely blamed for everybody’s digestive woes, and I’ve helped hundreds of patients back into gluten, after they were told it is ‘poison’. It’s all about moderation in the diet, if you load up on bread and grain foods, of course you are going to feel bad! But the same goes for meats, fruits or vegetables, if you eat any one of these groups continuously in large amounts you are going to feel bad.

      If you have constipation, be sure to read my article of constipation. There are many causes again. Be sure you have good bowel flora (healthy bacteria) and are eating the right kind of foods. Try some digestive enzymes for awhile, and along with probiotics often spontaneously “cure” constipation, even of long standing. All the best.

  • My husband has ben having leg numbness for a long time but only when he lays down at night and he had a mri done on lower back nothing showed up and he has ben to 2 chiropractors and they both dont know what to say, they also said its not siactica nerve issue. The numbness is sometimes in both legs but mostly the left and its the worst at night when he goes to sleep and its so bad at times he wakes up at least 2 times a night. To my hubby he feels as if its in the joint. Can Being sensative to gluten cause this to happen and get worse over a period of time? he also has stumach issues too as when he eats certian foods his gut will hurt. We r at a point we dont know whats worng. Can Gluten be the cause of it and is he highly sensative to it he also has family members going gluten FREE too becuse of other issues. thanks