Researchers have confirmed physical evidence of immune system activation and intestinal damage when wheat is consumed by some individuals without celiac disease and wheat allergy. 

For decades, but more so in recent years as awareness of celiac disease and the gluten-free diet has grown, patients have presented with severe abdominal issues, neurological complications, and other symptoms that look like celiac disease. Yet, they do not test positive for celiac disease or wheat allergy. Lacking adequate research, we had labeled this population as having gluten sensitivity, where the only treatment – like celiac disease – is the gluten-free diet.

A team of researchers at Columbia University, including Dr. Peter Green, a member of Celiac Disease Foundation’s Medical Advisory Board and Director of Columbia University’s Celiac Disease Center, has now confirmed that wheat exposure in this group is, in fact, triggering a systemic immune reaction and accompanying intestinal cell damage. It is estimated that the impacted population is equal to or even exceeds the number of individuals with celiac disease (the vast majority of whom remain undiagnosed).

At this point, research has not confirmed that gluten is the culprit triggering the immune reaction as is the case with celiac disease. According to head researcher of the study, Dr. Armin Alaedini, “there is some ambiguity there, which is why we are referring to it as non-celiac wheat sensitivity for now.” He explains that “more studies are needed to understand the mechanism and identify the molecular triggers responsible for the breach of the intestinal barrier and the associated symptoms in affected patients.”

The research is critically important because, for the first time, we have found specific biomarkers that explain the crippling impact of wheat exposure in some people who do not have celiac disease. More research is needed to understand what we now call non-celiac wheat sensitivity in order to answer questions, including:

  • What proteins (possibly gluten) in wheat are triggering the reaction?
  • What is the long-term impact of living with the disorder, especially if undiagnosed?
  • Are there comorbid conditions?
  • Is treatment and a cure possible?
  • Will there be a mechanism to test for the condition in patients who may or may not present with symptoms?

What this research has accomplished is validation. We now have physical evidence to explain what hundreds of thousands of patients have rightly asserted, but have too often been dismissed as being fanciful or exaggerated – wheat is making them sick even though they do not have celiac disease. As is the case with celiac disease, we must continue our efforts to educate the community and healthcare providers in order to increase the diagnosis rate and, therefore, limit the suffering and potential long-term damage to both body and mind. We will continue to do all we can to facilitate and fund research to find treatments and a cure for the millions who are suffering from this condition.

To read the original study, click here.