While more people than ever before are aware of gluten intolerance and celiac disease, a troubling misunderstanding of the condition persists and even seems to be spreading throughout the Internet. A single term embodies this misunderstanding: gluten allergy. Read on to learn why this term is misleading and relying on it could even be dangerous.
What Happens In A Food Allergy?
When someone experiences an allergic reaction, this reaction involves specific types of antibodies and chemicals in a specific type of reaction. The main antibodies in an allergic reaction are immunoglobulin E (IgE). These antibodies circulate your body with your blood and when triggered by the presence of an antigen create an immediate response.
During this response, chemicals called histamines are released. These histamines create the tangible symptoms we associate with allergic reactions. This entire response to an antigen is immediate and represents a Type 1 Hypersensitivity. A food allergy is a Type 1 Hypersensitivity.
Celiac Disease Is An Autoimmune Disease
Celiac disease is not a Type 1 Hypersensitivity. It does not involve IgE or histamines. It is an autoimmune disease with a delayed autoimmune response. When you have celiac disease, your body modifies the proteins in gluten (gliadin and glutenin) in a way that makes them trigger an over-reaction from your immune system. In this reaction, your body produces the excessive antibodies immunoglobulin A (IgA), anti-transglutaminase antibodies (ATA), and anti-gliadin antibodies (AGA).
These antibodies attack the lining of your small intestine, causing damage and inflammation, in particular resulting in the flattening of the intestinal villi. The villi are tiny finger-like protrusions along the wall of the small intestine that reach out and grab nutrients from the food you’re digesting.
By causing an inflammatory response in your body, drawing toxins and undigested proteins into your bloodstream and creating worsening malabsorption, celiac disease wreaks havoc on your entire body over time.
But this entire process can take between hours and months to trigger tangible, identifiable celiac disease symptoms.
How Is the Phrase Gluten Allergy Dangerous?
Think of it this way: left untreated and undiagnosed for long, celiac disease can cause other autoimmune diseases, a litany of troubling symptoms and conditions and even cancer. Yet celiac disease often does not trigger an immediate or obvious reaction.
If you have celiac sprue disease, you may be able to eat a large piece of gluten-dense whole wheat bread and not experience an immediate reaction… or even a reaction within several days. This is counter to how many people (perhaps even most people) understand the disease.
If you use the term gluten allergy, you imply an immediate response to consuming gluten. An allergy is a type 1 hypersensitivity, and most laymen think of an allergy as an immediate reaction to an antigen.
So if you rely on this inaccurate term to encapsulate this concept, you might miss a serious and even deadly case of gluten intolerance simply because you’re looking for an immediate and tangible reaction to consuming gluten.
I admit I still use the term gluten allergy because it often conveys the seriousness of the situation to many laymen in casual environments. A waiter might fear an allergic reaction more than “just” an intolerance, and thus he may be more vigilant in addressing your need while taking your order.
The topic of gluten intolerance is complex and evolving. A wheat allergy is a food allergy and you can experience several forms of gluten intolerance without testing positive for celiac disease (like a non-celiac gluten sensitivity). But try to stay clear on the difference between celiac disease and a food allergy and be deliberate and sparing in your use of the term gluten allergy.