It seems that more than ever before people recognize that their digestive ailments might have an environmental cause. A dietary cause, to be exact. For many, Irritable Bowel Disease (IBD) and digestive pain are often alleviated with removal of wheat.
For some the problem stems from a gluten intolerance, whereas others are outright allergic to wheat and gluten products. Wheat, and more specifically gluten, is in nearly everything we consume and use.
Gluten can be found in hair and skin care products, as fillers in processed food, and even in shampoos and makeup. So how can you distinguish between an intolerance and an allergy, and what are the signs that gluten might be a problem?
Sources of Gluten
Gluten is everywhere. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Therefore, anything made with these products or in contact with these products contains gluten.
That includes flour, bread, beer, and pasta. It also includes many fillers like “food starch”. Related grains like spelt and triticale may also contain glutens that cause symptoms for individuals.
Sometimes things that aren’t obviously made of wheat actually are, like seitan, soy sauce, and malt vinegar. French fries, especially frozen ones, are also sources of gluten as they are coated with flour.
Spices may have wheat as an anti-caking or filling agent and rice pilafs often have orzo pasta in the mix. When in doubt, look up the ingredients online to make sure a product really is free of gluten.
Gluten Sensitivity vs. Food Allergy
A gluten sensitivity is different from a wheat food allergy. A wheat food allergy is, by definition, an allergic immune response to the consumption of specific proteins found in wheat.
The body interprets the proteins as a foreign invader which triggers an immune response. The immune response then causes physical symptoms.
In a wheat allergy, the protein that causes symptoms is wheat gluten. These symptoms may include hives, anaphylactic shock, eczema, asthma, nausea, arthritis, and vomiting.
A true allergy can be determined using several diagnostic methods, the most common of which is the skin prick test. The skin prick test measures the body’s immune response to allergens that are pricked into the surface of the skin.
A gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, is harder to recognize and diagnose. A sensitivity can be mild or severe.
Milder forms are hard to diagnose, since symptoms like malaise, joint pain, headaches, or stomach discomfort can mimic other disorders.
Diagnosis often comes through an elimination diet when the patient has already tried other options. Elimination of the aggravating foods will usually bring relief. Those with gluten sensitivity will not test positive for allergies.
IBD and Wheat
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD) is the name used mostly to describe two major autoimmune diseases.
The first is Crohn’s Disease, which can affect any part of the gastrointestinal tract from the mouth to the anus and affects the entire bowel wall.
The symptoms of Crohn’s Disease are abdominal pain, vomiting, mouth sores, fever, and diarrhea. A colonoscopy is required to diagnose Crohn’s.
The second is Ulcerative Colitis, which affects the colon and the rectum exclusively. Ulcerative colitis affects the epithelial lining of the gut.
The symptoms of Ulcerative Colitis are similar to Crohn’s Disease, although weight loss is not as common. Diagnosis is based on symptoms as well as a colonoscopy.
A related disorder is Irritable Bowel Syndrome, or IBS. IBS is diagnosed based on symptoms. Symptoms include abdominal pain, discomfort, and abnormal bowel habits. Extreme diarrhea or constipation, or alternating between the two, is common.
Wheat is always high on the list of foods that affect IBS. Eliminating wheat often brings relief for those with irritable bowel syndrome.
The elimination of the grain is more likely to bring relief for IBS sufferers than IBD sufferers, since Crohn’s and Ulcerative Colitis are both autoimmune whereas IBS is not.
Wheat can still play a role in symptoms for any gut pain, however, and a wheat allergy can complicate underlying issues.
Gluten-free Food Alternatives
Many turn to gluten free foods as replacements for foods that have been removed from the diet. Common staples include gluten free flour, gluten free bread, gluten free pasta, and gluten free alcohol.
These products bring relief for some but not for others. The reason for this is due to a few factors. The first factor is that some people are more sensitive to the presence of gluten than others, and the microscopic presence of gluten causes problems for some sufferers. The second reasons is due to cross reactions to other grains.
Unfortunately, it is not uncommon for someone with a sensitivity to one protein to be sensitive to another. Those with a true allergy are not as susceptible to cross reactions.
Those with sensitivity to gluten may be sensitive to other cereal grains, which makes consuming so-called “gluten free” products difficult, as gluten-free products often use other grains to substitute for wheat.
It isn’t uncommon to be sensitive or allergic to both milk and gluten, which makes eating a traditional western diet very difficult for many.
Another food that many have problems with but which doesn’t receive a lot of attention is corn. Corn is the sixth most common food intolerance in the United States, yet it isn’t required to be labelled.
Corn is technically a grain and thus causes similar problems as other grains like wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Those with sensitivities to gluten may have a sensitivity to corn as well.
Corn is found in many products. Hidden sources of corn can include caramel color, baking powder, dextrose, and food starch.
These products cause problems because manufacturers do not have to list the sources of their fillers and ingredients, and are allowed to use terms like “natural flavorings” in ingredient lists.
If you have gone gluten free and still experience digestive or other problems, perhaps corn may be an issue. Other ingredients that cause issues are soy and oats.
Whole Food Alternative
Some find relief in removing processed foods from their diet altogether. Eating plenty of whole foods in the form of fresh and cooked fruits and vegetables eliminates the hidden sources of gluten and grains found in foods.
It may also eliminate the cravings and weight problems associated with processed food and excess sugar consumption.
Cooking food from scratch also eliminates most sources of hidden gluten that is found in processed food. Unfortunately, eating cleanly requires one to be more adept at planning meals, preparing food, and then cooking it.
Just because doctors don’t always look at the dietary causes of disease doesn’t mean that diet isn’t a factor; it simply means that doctors are not trained in nutrition as medicine.
There is no reason to suffer needlessly. If other remedies have failed to bring relief, perhaps looking into the dietary sources of your problem can help.
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