A new study published by Columbia University researchers last month in the journal Gut may shed new light on the phenomenon of “gluten sensitivity”. Gluten is a protein component of several common grains like wheat, barley, and rye and is responsible for the “stretchiness” of bread. It has long been recognized that 1-2% of the population suffer from gluten enteropathy (Celiac disease), an autoimmune disease triggered by exposure to gluten. Celiac disease, characterized by persistent diarrhea and bloating, muscle and joint pain, skin rash, and a host of other symptoms is relatively easy to diagnose with laboratory studies and upper endoscopy.
For over a decade now, millions of Americans have been increasingly self diagnosing themselves as “gluten intolerant” and choosing a gluten free diet based on the presence of one or more symptoms of gluten enteropathy in the absence of laboratory or endoscopic evidence of celiac disease. The phenomenon of gluten intolerance, has long been thought by many to be no more than a fashionable imaginary disease of the affluent.
This latest evidence lends credibility to the claim that some persons may suffer adverse health effects from certain gluten containing grains even in the absence of celiac disease. In the study, researchers measured markers of systemic immune response and compromised intestinal mucosal barrier in 80 subjects with non-celiac wheat sensitivity and found significantly increased serum levels of soluble CD14 and lipopolysaccharide (LPS)-binding protein, as well as antibody reactivity to bacterial LPS and flagellin. Furthermore, they also noticed a trend toward normalization of these serum markers of inflammation and intestinal damage when the test subjects refrained from eating wheat containing products.
Recent estimates indicate that up to 6% of Americans may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, whereas 16% of Americans choose to exclude gluten from their diet. A recent consumer insight study of 1700 adults on gluten free diets indicated that 35% of gluten free consumers have no idea why they have chosen a gluten free diet, listing “no reason at all” for their choice.