With celebrities and major food manufacturers turning the gluten-free diet into the latest fad diet, more and more people are wondering about the origins of the need to avoid gluten. I’m starting to see some dangerous misuse of the vocabulary surrounding the gluten phenomenon. One term in particular that concerns me is the term gluten allergy.
Celiac Disease Is Not a Food Allergy
I’m sure many of you are wondering what’s wrong with this simple phrase. Let me explain. The most severe form of gluten intolerance is celiac disease. When people are diagnosed with celiac sprue disease, they must strictly avoid gluten for the rest of their lives. Because gluten is a protein composite present in wheat, barley and rye, people think that having to avoid gluten means they have a food allergy.
But celiac disease is not a food allergy. A food allergy is a type 1 hypersensitivity involving cells called Immunoglobulin E (IgE). This kind of allergy involves an immediate or almost-immediate response to the consumption of the allergen.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease; it is not an allergy. This means some people with a severe case of this disease might be able to eat a slice of bread dense with gluten, yet not experience an immediate, tangible reaction.
However, this doesn’t mean gluten isn’t doing severe damage. Somewhere in their bodies, most likely along the lining of their small intestine, gluten is still wreaking havoc. The results of that havoc will eventually appear… but it could take days, weeks or even months before the damage becomes clear.
When people think of celiac disease as an allergy, they may assume that they must have an immediate response to consuming anything with gluten in it. So if they eat gluten and don’t notice any immediate gluten intolerance symptoms, they may assume they don’t have this challenging disease. This could be a dangerous assumption. If left untreated for too long, celiac disease can have serious long-term consequences, including cancer.
Then What Is A Gluten Allergy?
Technically, there is no such thing as a gluten allergy. You can have a wheat allergy, a non-celiac gluten sensitivity or celiac sprue disease. But the term gluten allergy doesn’t have a specific medical meaning.
Rather, it has become a kind of layman catch-all term for the many conditions under the gluten intolerance umbrella. These conditions include not only a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, celiac disease and a wheat allergy, but also gluten ataxia and dermatitis herpetiformis.
Gluten ataxia occurs when the antibodies triggered by gluten attack the base of the cerebellum, the part of your brain that controls your coordination. Dermatitis herpetiformis is a skin rash that in most cases is triggered by the consumption to gluten. It is not really an allergy, either, because it is an autoimmune response that may take days to manifest itself after a patient consumes gluten.
So all of these different terms fall under the term gluten allergy. But it is most important to realize that this is a layman term and not a medical diagnosis. Don’t let this layman term fool you into thinking celiac disease is a food allergy, or you may overlook the real possibility of gluten causing long-term consequences to your health.