The gluten-free craze has proven to be one of the more controversial dietary movements in recent memory.
While there are those who diagnosably suffer from celiac disease and must avoid gluten or face a variety of horrible symptoms, there are also those who pursue a gluten-free diet for vague "health" reasons despite not experiencing any negative effects. And in the middle, there are many people who haven't been diagnosed with celiac disease or allergies but claim that gastrointestinal woes, fatigue, and other symptoms disappear when they're on a gluten-free diet.
Now, a new study says that the gluten-sensitive and gluten-intolerant aren't all just making it up.
A new study published in the journal Gut (great name) found a biological explanation for why some people may experience discomfort when eating foods containing wheat, rye, or barley, a condition that until now has baffled researchers. A research team at the Columbia University Medical Center and the University of Bologna in Italy found that even if patients don't exhibit the telltale scientific markers of celiac or wheat sensitivity, they can still experience celiac-like stomach and intestinal pain, as well as mood swings, fatigue, cognitive difficulties, and other symptoms after eating wheat and similar grains.
These patients suffer from what's known as non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS). In the study, researchers found that NCWS patients showed signs that they were experiencing body-wide inflammatory immune responses after eating wheat and other grains—a problem that celiac patients, despite extensive intestinal damage from the disease, didn't experience. The researchers linked the overactive immune reactions to the elevated movement of "microbial and dietary components from the gut into circulation, in part due to intestinal cell damage and weakening of the intestinal barrier."
"Our study shows that the symptoms reported by individuals with this condition are not imagined, as some people have suggested," said study co-author Peter H. Green, the director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University Medical Center, in a press release. "It demonstrates that there is a biological basis for these symptoms in a significant number of these patients."
The immune reaction would explain the swift onset of symptoms for those that suffer from NCWS— about 1 percent of the US population, or 3 million people, according to Columbia research (previous studies have suggested that the number may be as high as 6 percent)—after digesting wheat and similar grains. When the researchers put self-identified NCWS patients on a gluten-free diet for six months, the immune reactions and signs of intestinal damage went back to normal, and patients stopped experiencing symptoms.
The researchers say their findings will help them develop methods of diagnosing NCWS and find new ways to treat the condition. Next up, they're going to be looking into what triggers the initial intestinal damage in people with NCWS.
Maybe they could team up with the researchers at the University of Alberta, who developed a pill last summer (currently going through clinical trials) to help gluten-intolerant people digest foods that contain wheat.
The wheat and gluten-intolerant are looking at you, science, for their eventual return to the joys of pizza and pasta.