As the gluten-free revolution has picked up momentum, more people are discovering that gluten sensitivity, including celiac disease (an autoimmune disease caused by reaction to gluten), lurks behind their problematic health symptoms.
But how do you know for sure if you suffer from negative reactions to gluten? Some of the major red flags signaling gluten intolerance are digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, but these symptoms can also be due to any number of alternate causes. One possible way to test whether your health complaints are in fact due to gluten is to remove all gluten-containing foods from your diet and monitor the progress of your symptoms. If they clear up, you may have your answer. If your health doesn’t improve after a gluten-free period, your symptoms may nonetheless still stem from gluten reaction, but as part of a more complex picture of your health.
Sorting through the gluten damage
Nearly every person has some level of gluten sensitivity, and the digestive discomfort associated with gluten reaction may be only one part of the puzzle. You may find through proper medical testing that your symptoms are due to other food sensitivities, parasites, abnormal bacterial overgrowth, and neurological or emotional triggers. In addition, many people who are gluten-sensitive do not experience digestive symptoms, instead developing neurological or immune symptoms. The gastrointestinal (GI) tract is rich with neurological, hormonal and immune system components, so damage to the GI tract because of gluten reactions can have major impacts throughout your body.
False negative test results
Blood testing and allergen testing can determine whether you have a minor gluten intolerance or celiac disease, which damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents certain nutrients from being absorbed. However, the gluten-sensitivity blood tests that have been available for years can frequently and misleadingly show a negative result, even in the presence of a moderate to severe gluten sensitivity. In my clinic, we use saliva and/or stool testing, which looks for an immune reaction directly at the level of contact between your gut lining and gluten-containing foods. This type of testing often gives a more accurate reading as to the level of gluten-sensitivity.
No test is foolproof, and even the newer gluten-sensitivity tests can give you a false negative reading if the immune system within your GI tract is not functioning properly. Digestive-immune impairment often happens after years of eating foods that you are sensitive to, as well from chronic inflammation caused by a variety of conditions. Even with these limitations, the saliva or stool tests are the most accurate we’ve found to date. One stool test that is available online can be found at Enterolab.com, and a saliva test kit can be purchased at Unikeyhealth.com without a doctor’s order.
Alternate test for celiac disease
If you do have gluten-sensitivity, how do you know if it is mild or severe, or if you actually have celiac disease? With severe gluten reactions, continued gluten exposure can damage the lining of your small intestine, reducing the surface area for nutrient absorption and creating a host of related complications. In the past, more in-depth testing for celiac disease was typically performed by taking a sample (biopsy) of the small intestine during an invasive procedure in which a scope is passed down into the small intestine. This test helped to analyze the level of damage to the intestinal lining. Alternately, Enterolab has developed a stool test measuring fat in the stool. If the fat level is abnormally high, this indicates that fat is not being absorbed and is an indirect measure of intestinal damage.
Choosing gluten-free alternatives
Because there is no straightforward test to distinguish between people that are highly sensitive and those who are mildly sensitive, complete avoidance of gluten-containing foods is the universal recommendation to heal gluten problems. However, gluten is often hidden in foods or not obviously listed in the ingredients, so you need to become a careful label reader to keep gluten out of your meals.
If a product is labeled as “wheat free,” it may not be gluten-free. To be safe, the label must be explicitly labeled as “gluten-free.” In addition, many other types of foods, such as nuts or beans are packaged in the same plant as gluten-containing foods, which can contribute to cross-contamination and induce allergies. Thanks to the growing demand for gluten-free foods, many manufacturers now are clearly labeling their products for gluten-free consumers.
Targeted Digestive Support
To reduce the inflammation and damage caused not just by gluten but a number of other pro-inflammatory food items including sugar, alcohol, processed foods, dairy and others, it can be very helpful to supplement with targeted botanicals and nutrients. Ingredients like tangerine peel, cardamom, ginger, zinc, chromium, and others can help reduce inflammation, repair the intestinal lining, improve nutrient assimilation, relieve digestive discomfort, and promote healthy microbial balance. I recommend an Integrative Digestive Formula that contains these and other ingredients to offer broad-spectrum support for rebuilding and rebalancing digestion, elimination and nutrient absorption.
Our knowledge of gluten sensitivity and its many complications is constantly evolving as the gluten-free movement gains a significant foothold within conventional and integrative medicine. The avoidance of gluten has restored the health of millions of people — sometimes quickly and at other times more gradually. If you feel you have issues with gluten, remember to always follow your gut and get appropriate testing to increase awareness of your own personal health and wellness.