Recent health headlines proclaimed gluten sensitivity doesn't exist, fueling a backlash against the gluten-free diet as a baseless fad. These stories point to a recent study questioning the relationship between non-celiac gluten sensitivity and digestive symptoms. Sadly, they mislead the public by glossing over major points of research and cherry-picking information to debunk gluten sensitivity.
The study looked at how people with gluten sensitivity reacted to varying levels of gluten. Significant to the study was the elimination of FODMAPS (Fermentable Oligo-, Di-, and Monosaccharides, and Polyols), carbohydrates in many common foods known to exacerbate irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms. Foods high in FODMAPS include garlic, onion, beans, many fruits, yogurt, and more. Researchers removed FODMAPS to rule them out as a source of digestive symptoms, clearing the slate to determine whether gluten was to blame.
Study's view is too narrow
The study concluded gluten had no effect on patients with gluten sensitivity who were placed on a low FODMAP diet, causing journalists to declare gluten sensitivity doesn't exist. However, the paper doesn't actually suggest that. Instead, the authors give nod to other factors that may have affected their results, such as the possibility that FODMAPS and gluten might work together to cause gastrointestinal symptoms. They acknowledged the results were markedly different from a previous study, and point out the need for further exploration on the topic.
Gluten sensitivity does not cause digestive symptoms in most people — affects other parts of the body
More importantly, the study did not look at symptoms outside of the digestive tract. Other research shows gluten causes digestive symptoms in only about one third of those with gluten sensitivity. In fact, gluten sensitivity destroys the brain and nervous tissue more than any other tissues in the body, and symptoms can be ambiguous for years and difficult to connect with gluten. Symptoms of a gluten sensitivity can also manifest in the skin, joints, bones and teeth; gluten has been associated with more than 55 diseases so far, most of them autoimmune.
While this recent study looks at digestive symptoms in response to gluten, it does not consider other symptoms commonly associated with gluten sensitivity, such as depression (research here), muscle pains, inflammation, neurological issues and changes in mental function.
The study also does not consider other important facets of gluten sensitivity, such as gluten cross-reactivity seen with autoimmunity (when the immune system mistakenly attacks body tissue, such as the thyroid gland or the brain, because it so closely resembles the gluten protein), leaky gut, other foods that cross-react with gluten and cause gluten sensitivity symptoms (such as dairy), and more. These other factors need to be incorporated into a more comprehensive understanding of gluten.
So does gluten sensitivity exist?
Although there is no verified biomarker for non-celiac gluten sensitivity, researchers at the Center for Celiac Research and Treatment say they are close to determining one. Also, this recent study is but one of many in the field of gluten research and other research shows very clear evidence of gluten sensitivity.
Should you abandon your gluten-free diet?
While this new study asks valuable questions, does it mean non-celiacs who experience symptoms from gluten should continue eating it? Of course not! While this study raises new questions in relation to FODMAPS, millions of people with gluten sensitivity worldwide experience relief from their symptoms and progression of chronic disease on a gluten-free diet. Functional medicine practitioners have especially seen the beneficial effect of a gluten-free diet on myriad conditions.
The body always knows best. When we learn to listen to the body, the wisdom it shares leads us to make solid choices for greater health and wellness.