What is gluten sensitivity?

What is gluten sensitivity?

Gluten sensitivity (sometimes called non-coeliac gluten sensitivity or NCGS) is a condition that presents with very similar symptoms to those of coeliac disease.

Population surveys suggest that NCGS is much more common than coeliac disease. Symptoms can affect the gut or other parts of the body, and may include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhoea
  • Constipation
  • Nausea/ vomiting
  • Headache
  • ‘Foggy mind’/ difficulty concentrating
  • Anxiety/ depression
  • Lethargy
  • Joint/ muscle pain
  • Numbness in arms and legs
  • Skin rashes

Whilst there are similarities in terms of the types of symptoms experienced in both coeliac disease and NCGS, there are also many differences between the two conditions. Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition in which gluten causes the body’s own immune system to attack and damage the lining of the gut. It is not clear how or if the immune system is involved in the generation of symptoms for someone with NCGS, however the antibodies and gut damage seen in those suffering from coeliac disease are not present. People with NCGS don’t appear to have increased risk of developing the health complications typically associated with coeliac disease (for example, anaemia and osteoporosis).

It is not clear how strictly someone with NCGS must stick to a gluten-free diet. It’s possible that some people with NCGS will be able to tolerate small amounts of gluten without feeling unwell.

There is some debate amongst scientists regarding which part of the wheat grain may be the cause of symptoms in NCGS. Whilst some believe gluten to be the trigger, others argue that alternative types of proteins or starches known as fructans are the cause. For this reason, NCGS is sometimes referred to as ‘non-coeliac wheat sensitivity’.  

NCGS may be diagnosed if symptoms improve following the removal and gluten from the diet, and worsen when gluten is reintroduced. It’s essential that coeliac disease and wheat allergy are ruled out before a diagnosis of NCGS is made. There is currently no blood test available to diagnose NCGS.

If you believe that you may be suffering from NCGS it’s important that you don’t remove gluten from your diet until you have been tested for coeliac disease, otherwise your coeliac tests may return a false negative result.