As the gluten-free revolution gains momentum, more people are discovering that gluten sensitivity — including celiac disease (an autoimmune disease caused by reaction to gluten) — lurks behind their troubling health symptoms.
But diagnosis can be difficult. Many sufferers spend years in doctor’s offices before they are diagnosed and get the relief they need.
So how can you know for sure if you suffer from negative reactions to gluten? Some of the major red flags signaling intolerance are digestive symptoms such as gas, bloating, constipation or diarrhea, but these symptoms can also be due to any number of alternate causes not related to gluten sensitivity.
One possible way to test whether these complications 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 damage
Nearly every person has some level of gluten sensitivity, and the digestive discomfort associated with gluten reaction may only be 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 sensitive do not experience digestive symptoms, instead developing neurological or immune symptoms such as peripheral neuropathy (numbness or tingling in the hands or feet), mental and emotional imbalances, or autoimmune diseases such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, psoriasis or others. The gastrointestinal tract is rich with neurological, hormonal and immune system components, so damage to the GI tract via gluten reactions, can have major impacts throughout your body.
False negative gluten 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 blood tests that have been available for years can frequently show a negative result, even in the presence of moderate to severe 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 the gluten-containing food. This type of testing often gives more a more accurate reading as to the level of gluten sensitivity.
No test is fool proof, and even the newer gluten sensitivity tests can give you a false negative reading if your 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 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 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 those that are highly sensitive and those who are mildly sensitive, complete avoidance of gluten-containing foods is the universal recommendation. However, it is often hidden in foods or not listed in the ingredients so you will need to become a careful label reader. If the product is labeled as “wheat free,” it may not be gluten free. 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 are clearly labeling their products for gluten-free consumers.
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 it has restored the health of millions of people, sometimes quickly, others over time. If you feel you have issues with gluten, remember to always “follow your gut” and get appropriate testing now available to increase awareness of your own personal health and wellness.
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