By Dr. Neela Sandal
Gluten is made up of starch proteins and can be found in wheat, barley, and rye. It is what gives dough its stretchy and elastic quality. It is present in every product containing wheat, barley, or rye, including breads and pastas. There are several gluten-related disorders, such as Celiac disease and wheat allergy, which are fairly simple to diagnose and are recognized by most doctors. Gluten sensitivity can be more difficult to spot, and it should be handled differently than the other gluten-related conditions.
A true allergic reaction, such as with a wheat allergy, is intense, immediate, and strong. After being exposed to an allergen, a person has an immune system response and might immediately experience itching, hives, swelling, and difficulty breathing. Sometimes people have to use an EpiPen (an Ephinephrine injector) to quickly counteract a life-threatening allergic reaction. Allergies like this are intrinsic: every time a person is exposed to the allergen, she will have this reaction.
Food sensitivities are also immune responses, but they are more subtle. They may be transient, where sometimes a person will experience a reaction, and sometimes she won’t. A reaction may develop slowly, over the course of hours or days. And, the symptoms are not as intense or strong. For example, a person with a gluten sensitivity may feel bloated, uncomfortable, and achy a few hours or days after eating bread or pasta. Gluten is a common food sensitivity. Other common sensitivities are to corn, soy, cow milk, tomatoes, and bananas, among others.
It can be difficult to test for food sensitivities, because they are so subtle. One straight-forward, low-risk, low-cost way to test for a food sensitivity is to try an elimination diet. In an elimination diet, we remove a suspect food from the diet entirely for two to three months. After completely avoiding the food for that length of time, we methodically and carefully re-introduce it to the diet, and we watch what happens. A person who is sensitive to that food may then experience his body’s reaction to the food with unprecedented clarity. There are also laboratory tests available to identify food sensitivities. Thus, it is possible to test for food sensitivities so that each of us can know what foods to avoid or to eat only occasionally.
It is also possible to cure some food sensitivities. Many food sensitivities develop because we have chronic inflammation in our bodies, and because we have had a breakdown of the environment in our gut. If we treat the inflammation and strengthen gut health, we can reduce our sensitivity to a particular food, like gluten. If we temporarily remove the food from our diet, our body can become less likely to react when we do eat that food in the future. We can help the immune system learn to stop reacting to that food item.
We may also be able to prevent food sensitivities – to gluten or other foods – from developing in the first place! It’s not entirely clear why there has been an increase in food sensitivities. Studies suggest it isn’t merely that we are more aware of food sensitivities, but that people are actually experiencing them more. The way we are growing and processing our foods has changed so much in the past several decades, and these changes offer us some clues. Many good theories propose that the use of chemical pesticides, for example, has caused our bodies to become sensitized and react to foods that didn’t used to bother many people. When at all possible, it is a good practice to eat minimally processed foods that haven’t been grown with pesticides.
Treating food sensitivities takes an integrating approach where we: (1) Discover what we are sensitive to and avoid it; (2) Enhance the health of our gut biome; and (3) Decrease inflammation. While not everyone is sensitive to gluten, we all can learn something about our food sensitivities, and use that information better health and vitality.