Nowadays you can see gluten free foods everywhere you turn. They have their own isle in the grocery store, and you can hear the mom in the corner of the store raving to her friend how much better she feels after going gluten free. But if you don’t have celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that can lead to damage in the small intestine from gluten, is going gluten free actually helping you?
I for one, used to be a believer that I was gluten-sensitive. I would feel worse when I would have wheat noodles or bread, and tried to avoid gluten as much as possible. But that wasn’t stopping my symptoms completely, so I turned to the doctor to see what was going on. It turns out that I have issues with lactose and fructans, and not gluten. But most people that believe that they are gluten-sensitive most likely don’t have issues with both lactose and fructose (which can be found in many products with gluten). So is gluten-sensitivity actually real? Or is it in people’s heads, and may be another problem entirely?
Peter Gibson, a professor at Monash University in Australia, originally believed that gluten intolerance was real and published research on it in 2011. But as he was looking back at his findings, he seemed uneasy with the result and decided to look a bit deeper into the subject. He did a double-blind cross-over study of 37 people that had self-reported themselves as gluten sensitive and that had IBS, but did NOT have celiac. They were then randomly put into groups that got a 2 week diet of reduced FODMAPS, and then after were put into either a high gluten diet, a low gluten diet, or a control diet (and then a washout period of 2 weeks). They looked for traces of inflammation in the bowel and whether or not the immune system was affected. 22 participants were then put into another group for 3 days to see a different diet’s effects. The conclusion was that while the FODMAP reduced diet helped all the participants, when they were put back on other diets only 8% of the people experienced any symptoms scientifically linked to gluten through analyses’. Basically, gluten didn’t do anything to the people even though they thought it did.
The study, however, could easily be flawed. First of all, there were only 37 participants, leaving the result to just be a false negative. There could have also been mistakes while the scientists were analyzing fecal matter- what exactly were they looking for? It lead me to look for another study, and the one I found was contradicting: 59 patients were looked at by researchers at the National Institutes of Health. Each person, like the first study, didn’t have celiac but those gluten was causing them issues. Each day for a week each person was either given 5 grams of gluten in a pill or a placebo of rice starch. After the week, those taking the gluten pill reported intestinal pains, bloating, depression, and ulcers.
So what gives? How could they have completely different results? After all, the second study only had 59 patients, so sample size could easily influence the conclusion as well. One study must be a fluke. I decided to look deeper. Researchers studied 59 Italians who said they were gluten sensitive. Some received a small amount of rice protein everyday, while others received gluten. They then switched who was receiving what. Only 3 patients had more symptoms during the gluten phase, meaning that for the vast majority, it was all in their head.
Believe it or not, these were the only studies that were found relating to my question. So what does this leave me to believe? I turned to Dr. Stukus, an allergist at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital at Ohio State University. He believed that most of the craziness involving gluten intolerance is actually due to FODMAPs, which is a collection of molecules that is hard to digest for most people (but nobody knows about them!) As allergies to most foods are not that common, he believes that a gluten allergy (which would be considered gluten sensitivity) is rare, but still possible. Nutrionist Alice Makintosh from the Food Doctor also agreed, and said that a true allergy is rare, and that most people are probably experiencing symptoms from FODMAPs but attributing them to gluten.
While we may not have gotten a completely conclusive answer, it is safe to say that gluten sensitivity is in fact real. The kicker is that it’s not nearly as common as people think- and most people blame gluten when the real culprit is other things, or even their head.