Grain of truth: The facts about wheat and gluten sensitivities
The symptoms are hard to ignore: after eating a grain product – such as bread, cereal or pasta – you’re seized with abdominal cramps and your belly is as taut as an overinflated balloon. Along with an overwhelming feeling of fatigue, you may also get a pounding headache on some occasions.
What’s causing you to react so negatively to these foods, which are mealtime staples in most Canadian homes? The culprit may be a wheat allergy, wheat intolerance or celiac disease – conditions that are often lumped together and misunderstood.
Common symptoms, different conditions
With a wheat allergy, the body’s immune system identifies the wheat as an invader and produces chemicals called antibodies to fight the wheat protein. When these antibodies overreact and fight a little too fiercely, you get symptoms that may include hives or a rash, flushed face, difficulty breathing, cramps, diarrhea, or swelling of the eyes, face, lips, throat and tongue. In worst-case scenarios, a wheat allergy could lead to a sudden drop in blood pressure, rapid heartbeat and loss of consciousness.
Wheat intolerance may produce some of the same symptoms as a wheat allergy – such as cramps, diarrhea or rashes – but it usually takes days, even weeks before these symptoms appear, and the body doesn't go into immune response mode.
Celiac disease is another condition caused by eating grain products. But what sets celiac disease apart from a wheat allergy or intolerance is that it’s triggered by a specific protein called gluten, which is found in wheat and in other grains such as barley, rye, kamut and spelt. Not all grains have gluten; rice, corn, oats, quinoa, millet and amaranth are among the grains that are gluten-free.
Like wheat allergy, celiac disease is an immunological response. But here’s the key difference: In wheat allergy, antibodies attack the wheat protein. In celiac disease, the antibodies attack the body’s normal tissues and eat away at the lining of the small intestine. This makes it hard for the body to absorb essential nutrients.
Living with a wheat- or gluten-related condition
With all of these three conditions, eliminating the offending food or substance from the diet is key to preventing symptoms. But be sure to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis before you start crossing off items from your grocery list.
Celiac disease, which is hereditary, is diagnosed with results from a blood test and a biopsy from the intestinal tract. Wheat allergy is determined by a skin-prick test – where allergens are put on the skin after it's been pricked – while wheat intolerance is typically diagnosed with a food challenge, which involves eating small amounts of the suspect food and monitoring for reactions.
Once you've been diagnosed, it’s important to follow the diet prescribed by your healthcare provider. By consistently making the right food choices, you can manage your wheat- or gluten-related condition and maintain good health.