Gluten Sensitivity: An Overview

gluten free 1Gluten sensitivity is a broad term that refers to a number of different conditions, but it most often refers to “non-celiac gluten sensitivity.” Gluten causes problems for many Americans, both children and adults, but what is gluten exactly, and what does “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” mean?

An estimated 18 million Americans have problems with gluten. Of these, only about 10 percent have full-blown celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder. The rest have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, a condition that appears to be on the rise and one that doctors are still struggling to understand. In fact, gluten sensitivity wasn’t even officially recognized until early 2011.

What Is Gluten?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and other related grains. It is the “glue” that holds dough together and gives it that elasticity and texture that is so important in cakes and other baked goods. For most people, gluten is harmless, even beneficial; but for others, it is a cause of discomfort and a source for a number of health problems.


Eating gluten can cause a wide range of symptoms in someone with a gluten sensitivity, and many of these symptoms resemble those caused by celiac disease. The most obvious symptoms involve the digestive system. Your child may complain of stomach aches, constipation or diarrhea, for example. Other symptoms include drowsiness, headaches and an inability to concentrate. Note that malnutrition and intestinal damage, hallmarks of celiac disease, do not occur in people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Early research suggests that there are no long-term health consequences of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, even when gluten is consumed, which is why it is considered less severe than celiac disease.

Your child will likely be diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity when he or she tests negative for both a wheat allergy and celiac disease, and when his or her symptoms improve on a diet free of gluten. There is not currently any kind of laboratory test for gluten sensitivity.

Other Problems with Gluten

Celiac Disease: Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects the small intestine. Whenever gluten is present in a celiac person’s body, the immune system overreacts and attacks the absorbent inner-layer of the intestine. Often painful, this disease can cause fatal complications if not managed properly. Like gluten sensitivity, celiac disease is on the rise.

Wheat Allergy: Incorrectly termed “gluten allergy” by some, wheat allergies work just like other food allergies. Allergic reactions are caused by several proteins found in wheat that differ from gluten. This condition is most common in children, who may have reactions that range from very mild to potentially fatal.

Foods to Avoid

The only known treatment for gluten sensitivity and celiac disease is avoidance of all foods that contain gluten, though some sufferers of non-celiac gluten sensitivity may find that only limiting their gluten intake can improve symptoms. Gluten is found in many different foods, thanks to America’s love of wheat. Note that gluten isn’t limited to wheat; it is also found in rye, barley, spelt and oats that aren’t certified gluten-free. Some common sources of gluten to watch out for include:

  • Cereals
  • Protein bars
  • Breads, cakes and other baked goods
  • Candy bars
  • Chips and crackers
  • Soups
  • Condiments
  • Pasta
  • Fried foods

The road to being officially diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a long one. The symptoms of this condition are wide-ranging, vague and difficult to pin down. They also resemble symptoms of other, more serious diseases such as Chron’s disease and celiac disease. And because this condition is so new and widely unknown, even to those in the medical community, parents of gluten-sensitive children often feel a lack of support and understanding. But take heart: all of those distressing symptoms of gluten sensitivity will disappear, seemingly overnight, once gluten is removed from the diet.

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