Gluten Sensitivity

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By Dr. Justin Marchegiani

Gluten sensitivity is a state of genetics, just like your genes cannot be changed. Therefore, what we have control over is the expression of our genes. Gluten is one of those food products which our genetics have not adapted to well. I suggest that if you are a person who have genetics that predispose you to gluten sensitivity, avoid gluten. Since this is the way in which you can control  how your genes are being expressed.

Terminologies related to gluten or grain

Gluten Sensitivity

Many people with gluten sensitivity can be gluten intolerant or have a gluten allergy as well. The terms allergy and intolerant have come to mean different things in conventional medicine. “Sensitivity” is the more excepted terminology in gluten circles. Sensitivity is referring to the fact that your immune system is hyper responsive to the gluten proteins. The byproduct of these hyper-immune responses is inflammation. And if prolonged, autoimmune conditions are a strong possibility.

Gluten Allergy

The term “gluten allergy” typical refers to your immune system creating an IgE immune response (anaphylactic in nature) to the gluten protein. These allergies are inborn and are usually known at birth.  We know allergies can also be delayed in nature via an IgG or IgA response with new cutting testing. And this is closer to what we see in gluten sensitivity.

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten Intolerance typically refers to the inability to break down the gluten proteins in the digestive tract. Just like with lactose intolerance, some individuals have a difficult time breaking down lactose. Lactose is milke sugar. But with specific enzymes (like lactaid), this is possible. Most people who are gluten sensitive have a difficult time breaking gluten down, too. But taking enzymes alone will not be enough to avoid the inflammation and autoimmune destruction from consuming it.

Celiac Disease

In science today, gluten sensitivity has been primarily connected  with celiac disease. Thus, the misconception is if you don't have celiac disease, you don't have gluten sensitivity. This couldn't be further from the truth! The testing used to diagnose and assess celiac disease can miss many people. Essentially, you can have all of the telltale signs and symptoms of gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, yet still be misdiagnosed. The typical mainstream diagnosis for celiac disease is a sample of your micro-villi from your small intestine. This can be seen via endoscopy. The micro-villi have to be worn down 80% for you to be considered celiac.

There are a couple problems with this diagnosis criteria:

1. What if we do not collect a sample that was affected by gluten?

2. What if the  micro-villi have not been worn down 80%?

This method is analogous to pulling a bucket of water out of the ocean. It is like examining that there is no fish in the bucket. And then concluding the ocean must have no fish. This may not be a perfect analogy, but I think you know what I'm getting at.

Blood Test

There are other blood tests that can be used to confirm celiac disease. These blood test includes transglutaminase antibodies, endomyseal antibodies. Other blood tests are deamidated gliadin and gliadin antibodies. If you come back positive with one of these test markers, you can be confident that you have celiac disease. But the problem is many individuals come back negative with these markers may still have gluten sensitivity.

So this is where genetic testing comes into play. If you have a gene that predisposes you to gluten sensitivity, it's just a matter of time till those gene expresses itself. The more physical, chemical and emotional stress you  are under, the more increased chance that your gluten sensitive genes will react. Then it will start creating symptoms. The symptoms for gluten sensitivity are all over the map!

Genetic Test

I think genetic testing is a good tool to assess if you have the genes for gluten sensitivity.  The problem with other testing is it's very easy to have false negative result. This means the test comes back negative. But in reality, you may still have gluten sensitivity. If you come back with a gluten sensitive gene, you can be confident that it's just a matter of time before that gene expresses itself. This will be the case if you keep eating gluten.

The primary genes that are involved in celiac disease are HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8.  There are other HLA-DQ genes involved as well. HLA-DQ 1, HLA-DQ 3 and HLA-DQ 7 are also genes that predispose you to gluten sensitivity. When you're looking at genetics such as HLA-DQ testing, you get one HLA-DQ gene from each parent.   If you receive two HLA-DQ 2's or two HLA-DQ 8's, this increases the risk of celiac disease. The same goes for gluten sensitivity.

According to the genetics, the only people that are immune to gluten sensitivity are people with the genetic sub-types HLA-DQ 4. This is actually less than 1% of the population. There needs to be more research done validating gluten sensitivity and its connection with the genetics (1).

Population Affected

The percentage estimates surrounding gluten sensitivity regarding the population are a point of contention among experts. Dr. Alessio Fasano at the University of Maryland medical school is a pioneer in gluten research. He feels that only 6 to 7% of the population are gluten sensitive. On the other hand, Dr. Ford a pediatrician in New Zealand and the author of the book “The Gluten Syndrome,” believes  30% to 50% of the population are gluten sensitive.  And according to Dr. Kenneth Fine, over 50% of the population is gluten sensitive. Either way you look at it, the new estimates that are coming out surrounding gluten sensitivity are showing a significant increase than the original 1% estimates of celiac disease.

The information that we have now shows the majority of the population are gluten sensitive. Majority of symptoms that come from gluten are not necessarily correlated with digestive issues.  And this is the problem with gluten sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity includes symptoms that are gastrointestinal in nature like bloating, gas, diarrhea and IBS. With gluten sensitivity, you are actually 8x more likely to have extra intestinal symptoms. And these are symptoms not related to the gastrointestinal tract, like headaches, depression, lupus and thyroid disease.  This is the main reason why gluten sensitivity is so easily glossed over today.

Most patients with gluten sensitivity complained of 2 or more symptoms (2).

gluten symptoms

The symptoms of gluten sensitivity

Celiac disease is a form of gluten sensitivity. So essentially, if you have celiac disease, you are gluten sensitive. And if you are gluten sensitive, you don't have to necessarily have celiac disease.

There are many common manifestations of gluten sensitivity, I call this the web of gluten sensitivity:

This includes:

the web of gluten sensitivity

I challenge you to Google scholar or Pubmed. Search for gluten or celiac disease with any disease of your choice. You will see many results come up in your search, proving the connection cannot be ignored.

My favorite method to assess for gluten sensitivity!

The problem with many of the tests that are out there, is that similar information can be received through a simple elimination provocation diet. And this is where inflammatory foods are cut out for a period of time and then added back in. The only time I conduct testing on patients, is if patients are resistant to changing their diet. Then the lab test can be very useful. It's because they can quantify to the patient in an objective manner that these issues are real. Some people  need to see that type of evidence before they cut out some of their most favorite and addicting foods!

I find almost all individuals who are suffering from some type of chronic illness benefit when they cut gluten out of their diet. The foods that contain gluten, which are all grains, tend to be very low in nutrition. In addition, they have a high glycemic index and create inflammation. Hence, it is always better to eat foods that are nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory and low in toxins.

My recommendations are for all of my patients to start off with some type of anti-inflammatory, autoimmune paleo or bulletproof style of eating. The focus with this type  of eating is to be consuming foods that are anti-inflammatory, low in toxins and nutrient dense. This allows us to put our body into a state of healing.  We can start recovering from all of the damage created by the gluten exposure by following this guideline. Macro-nutrient will be important. This includes ratios involving carbohydrate, protein and fat. It can always be adjusted to meet the needs of the patient. I deal with these macro-nutrient ratios on individual basis per patient.

What Do You Do If you Aren't Feeling Better After Going Gluten Free?

When dealing with patients that are chronically ill,  making the above dietary recommendations may not be enough. The inflammation created from years of stress and gluten consumption may have caused damage to your bodies. This includes your adrenals, thyroid and gastrointestinal system. You may have weakened your immune system because of all these. Also, chronic infections like parasite, bacterial, fungal and viral infections have already gained a foothold. So, I find removing these infection can be the missing barriers that are preventing people from getting better.

If you're not getting better  from going gluten-free,  feel free and schedule a complimentary consultation. Click here to review what your options are.


1.A. Fasano et al. Divergence of gut permeability and mucosal immune gene expression in two gluten-associated conditions: Celiac disease and Gluten sensitivity. BMC Medicine 2011, 9:23. doi:10.1186/1741-7015-9-23.

2. New understanding of gluten sensitivity. Umberto Volta & Roberto De Giorgio: Nature Reviews Gastroenterology & Hepatology 9, 295-299 (May 2012).

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