Gluten Intolerances: Separating The Facts From Fiction

Anthia Koullouros

Naturopath and Holistic Health Expert

Gluten is a protein composite found in Wheat, Rye, Spelt, Barley, Triticale and Kamut.  The word Gluten is Latin and means ‘glue’ and as the name suggests, gluten is commonly used in baking and food production to thicken and hold constituents together.

gluten-freeimage via pinterest

Do Oats contain Gluten?

Oats are from the grass tribe Aveneae, which is closely related in species to the Triticeae cereals – the family of grasses including wheat, barley and rye. Some, but not all, varieties of oats contain the pathogenic proteins that provoke a response for those with gluten intolerance and those with Coeliac Disease. In addition, some oats are produced in factories using equipment that also process wheat-based products, potentially leading to cross-contamination.

Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance or Sensitivity

The following symptoms are commonly seen in gluten intolerance:

– Hormonal imbalances
– General swelling
– Brain fog
– Nutritional deficiencies
– Severe acne
– Fatigue
– Bloating
– Abdominal discomfort or pain
– Constipation & diarrhea
– Muscular disturbances & bone or joint pain
– Headaches & migraines
– Dermatitis herpetiformis

Testing for Gluten Intolerance or Sensitivity

The most effective way to test for gluten sensitivity is to undertake an elimination diet. An elimination diet involves removing all gluten from the diet for 6 weeks and then reintroducing it for a couple of days – if you are intolerant a reaction will occur. If symptoms remain for the duration of the 6 week elimination it may be advisable to see a GP to determine whether your symptoms are from gluten grains or something else.

Wheat Allergy vs Gluten Sensitivity

Having a wheat allergy is different to being gluten intolerant. Like all true allergies, wheat allergy involves the production of immunoglobulin E (specific immune proteins known as ‘IgE antibodies’). The immune system sees the wheat as an intruder and produces the IgE antibodies, which in turn stimulate the release of histamine and other chemicals from the body’s mast cells, giving us the symptoms of allergic reaction.

Coealic Disease

In Coeliac Disease the immune system of those with this condition reacts abnormally (overreacts) to gluten and this results in damage to the small intestines. The tiny, finger-like projections that line the bowel (villi) become inflamed and flattened, limiting the absorption of nutrients and leading to nutrient deficiencies along with many of the symptoms listed above. Inflammation may occur in other parts of the body, causing symptoms. The antibodies typically affected in Coeliac Disease are the immunoglobulins IgA and IgG.

A first-degree relative (parent, sibling, child) of someone with coeliac disease has about a 10% chance of also having the disease. If one identical twin has coeliac disease there is an approximate 70% chance that the other twin will also have the disease (but this may not necessarily be diagnosed at the same time). Environmental factors, such as exposure to viruses, toxins and the overall quality of our diet and lifestyle, play an important role in triggering Coeliac Disease in infancy, childhood or later in life.

Testing for Coeliac

In order to detect the antibodies and intestinal damage present in Coeliac Disease, gluten must be consumed for 6 weeks prior to the test (which can be uncomfortable if you have been avoiding gluten for some time). Testing includes:

1. Blood test – detection of IgA and IgG antibodies, along with measurement of general nutrient status.
2. Small bowel biopsy – to confirm damage to the villi
3. Genetic testing – detection of the HLA DQ2 and HLA DQ8 genes. Either one or both of these genes are present in virtually every person with Coeliac Disease.

Interestingly, according to Coeliac Australia while 30% of the Australian population carry one or both of the Coeliac genes, only 1 in 30 people (approximately) will get Coeliac Disease. This reinforces the influence of environmental factors such as diet and lifestyle on the expression of auto-immune diseases.

Broader reactions to wheat

Conventional lab testing for Coeliac Disease and gluten intolerance only screens for antibodies to alpha-gliadin and transglutaminase-2.

However, wheat contains several other components, that research is beginning to show may also pose a problem. These components include lectins like wheat germ agglutinin (WGA), other epitopes of the gliadin protein (beta-gliadin, gamma-gliadin and omega-gliadin), a protein called glutenin, an op ioid peptide called gluteomorphin and a compound called deamidated gliadin produced by the industrial processing or digestion of gluten. This may explain why there are so many people who are intolerant to wheat and further research into these components may impact on the diagnoses and management of gluten intolerance in the future.

Conditions Associated with Coeliac Disease

As Coeliac Disease may affect most systems of the body, there are a number of other conditions associated with the condition. Lactose intolerance, depression, anaemia, thyroid disease, Type I Diabetes, Multiple Sclerosis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and infertility are just a few of the many conditions that are more prevalent amongst those with Coeliac Disease. It may be beneficial to be screened for some of these conditions at the time of your testing. See your GP for further information.


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