Center for Celiac Research: Gluten Sensitivity FAQ

Frequently asked questions about gluten sensitivity including how it differs from celiac disease, symptoms, prevalence and treatment.

What is gluten sensitivity?

As the word “sensitive” suggests, gluten sensitivity is a reaction to ingesting gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye. Symptoms can arise throughout the body and range from fatigue and “foggy mind” to diarrhea, depression and joint pain.

How does gluten sensitivity differ from celiac disease?

Although symptoms (particularly gastrointestinal) are often similar to those of celiac disease, the overall clinical picture is less severe. Recent research at the Center for Celiac Research shows that gluten sensitivity is a different clinical entity that does not result in the intestinal inflammation that leads to a flattening of the villi of the small intestine that characterizes celiac disease. The development of tissue transglutaminase (tTG) autoantibodies, used to diagnose celiac disease, is not present in gluten sensitivity.

A different immune mechanism, the innate immune response, comes into play in reactions of gluten sensitivity, as opposed to the long-term adaptive immune response that arises in celiac disease. Researchers believe that gluten sensitive reactions do not engender the same long-term damage to the intestine that untreated celiac disease can cause.

What are the symptoms of gluten sensitivity?

Just as in celiac disease, gluten sensitivity can affect all body systems and generate a wide variety of symptoms. Gastrointestinal symptoms can include diarrhea, bloating, cramping, abdominal pain and constipation. Behavioral symptoms can include “foggy mind,” depression and ADHD-like behavior. Other symptoms include anemia, joint pain, osteoporosis, and leg numbness.

How many people does gluten sensitivity affect? Research from the Center for Celiac Research indicates that it affects approximately 18 million people, or six percent of the population.

How can I tell if I have gluten sensitivity and what should I do?

This is something to discuss with your family physician or health care provider. If celiac disease and other conditions have been ruled out, i.e., irritable bowel syndrome and other forms of intestinal inflammation, talk to your doctor and dietitian about a gluten-free diet. Please do not undertake the gluten-free diet as treatment without the supervision of health care professionals as nutritional considerations as well as health considerations must be taken into account with this treatment.

Do I still need to be tested for celiac disease if I think I’m gluten sensitive?

Yes. You need to be tested for celiac disease to rule out the possibility of long-term complications. Accordingly, do not go on a gluten-free diet until the possibility of celiac disease has been eliminated through testing. If you go on a gluten-free diet and are then tested for celiac disease, the tests could be falsely negative due to the lack of autoantibodies in your blood serum.

Is there a test for gluten sensitivity?

Although researchers at the Center for Celiac Research are working to develop tests for gluten sensitivity, currently there are no definitive blood tests for the condition.

Is there a cure for gluten sensitivity?

Just as in celiac disease, there is no cure for gluten sensitivity. The only treatment currently available is the gluten-free diet.

patient

Make an appointment

Contact MassGeneral Hospital for Children to schedule an appointment with one of our specialists.

patient

Partners HealthCare Patient Gateway

Sign up today for secure online access to your health information.