All too often I’ll hear, “It’s like a dull achy feeling in my stomach.”, “Sometimes I feel nauseous and fatigued”, and “I haven’t gone to the bathroom for several days”. Vague, intermittent symptoms of gut distress are often ignored as they’re difficult to diagnose and typically non-life threatening. In most cases the doctor will shuffle the patient out the door with a prescription for a stool softener if anything at all. Complaints such as these are difficult to diagnose, because the causes are so varied. However, there is a condition that can explain these symptoms and is being recognized as more and more common. It’s called gluten sensitivity or the more severe form, Celiac’s disease.
Clinic Success Story
I recently had a patient with all of the above symptoms. The symptoms began after coming back from an overseas trip 2 months prior, in which she experienced some (gastroenteritis) traveler’s diarrhea. She was experiencing a vicious cycle of abdominal pain and constipation followed by diarrhea. She told me that most of the time she felt “nauseous and wiped out”. Her fatigue was getting progressively worse, making it difficult for her to concentrate and get anything done. It was obvious that on the surface she had a chronic bacterial infection stemming from the recent trip overseas. A course of antibacterial and gut nourishing herbs cleared up most of her symptoms. However, she kept falling back into the same symptom picture a few weeks after the herbs. I recommended a food elimination diet to identify potential foods triggering gut inflammation. She turned out to also have a condition known as Celiac disease, which kept her digestive system from healing. Once she was able to eliminate wheat gluten containing products from her diet, she no longer complained of digestive symptoms and regained her energy and concentration.
Allergy…Sensitivity…Celiac’s: What’s the difference?
There’s a lot of confusion surrounding gluten these days. Honestly speaking, the medical community is confused as well. I will try my best to clear things up and to keep it as simple as possible. First of all, gluten is a protein molecule found in the Triticeae family of grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. Below, we’ll go into the differences in terminology you may hear.
- Gluten allergy – very plainly, according to an allergist, this means there is a classic allergic response to the gluten molecule. This is much less common than a sensitivity, described below. Symptoms of a classic gluten allergy might looking like: itchy mouth, itchy throat, rashes, watery eyes, and more. This type of allergy is easily tested for by your doctor or allergist.
- Wheat sensitivity – this is a term used to describe those who obviously experience symptoms when they eat gluten containing grains, but do not have classic hypersensitivity reactions. On a blood test there may be antibodies towards gluten. These symptoms are not limited to the digestive system and can affect any part of the body. The immune system and digestive system are very complex and we are only just beginning to understand them. Thus, this term “sensitivity” describes a set of symptoms that have been observed in patients, but we do not have an exact scientific explanation yet, for why they they occur.
- Celiac’s disease – this is an autoimmune disorder, where the person’s immune system, when exposed to gluten, produces antibodies against gluten and against the lining of the small intestine. The small intestine is where we absorb most nutrients so in Celiac disease, most nutrients are not absorbed well. When these people eliminate gluten from their diets, their immune system eventually stops the attack on the small intestine and the symptoms of their digestive system inflammation resolve. As with gluten sensitivities, the symptoms are not limited to the digestive symptoms, but can affect a number of different aspects of a persons health, including mental health. In fact, many people never even have digestive complaints at all but can still have a host of other symptoms that seem unrelated.
To make things more confusing, these three terms are typically used interchangeably. If someone tells you that they can’t eat gluten, it could be due to uncomfortable gut symptoms, autoimmune inflammation, or a true hypersensitivity reaction. So, be kind to your gluten sensitive friend, family member, or partner. If you’re experiencing gut related symptoms, fatigue, or poor concentration, try considering food allergies as a potential cause and see your doctor.
If you’re looking for Naturopathic, Holistic, and Alternative Health Care options come see us in the beautiful Fairhaven district in Bellingham, WA.