Gluten can be a polarizing protein. Some have no qualms consuming it regularly. Some prefer to avoid it based on dietary choice. Some have been diagnosed with celiac disease and must omit it out of necessity. And some fall into a bit of a grey area known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or NCGS). While there is still much to learn about NCGS, those who suffer from this form of gluten intolerance experience a range of unpleasant symptoms. Like celiac disease, those with NCGS may have digestive discomfort or compromised wellness, but they may also have additional symptoms like depression or anxiety. Here’s a closer look at this sometimes perplexing condition.
What Is Gluten?
Before we discuss how gluten can affect our digestive systems differently, let’s dig into what gluten is exactly. Gluten is a naturally occurring protein found in many grains, including wheat, rye, and barley. It is created when two molecules, glutenin and gliadin, form a bond (typically this happens during baking). It’s important to note that gluten isn’t necessarily bad for you, but due to a range of sensitivities and even intolerance, gluten isn’t for everyone.
What Is Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?
About one percent of the population suffers from celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that can damage the intestine should it try to digest gluten. But gluten allergies don’t stop there. About six percent of the population have what is called non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which can cause similar discomfort and unpleasant digestion issues but doesn’t damage the intestine. Less is known about NCGS than celiac disease, as it can sometimes be a catch-all term to describe any and all sensitivities to gluten. What is known is that it can cause nearly identical symptoms as celiac disease and shouldn’t be confused with a wheat allergy (it is not uncommon for someone with NCGS to test negative for a wheat allergy).
What causes non-celiac gluten sensitivity?
Research as to the primary cause behind NCGS is ongoing, however researchers in Italy and the U.S. have recently discovered that those with NCGS but not celiac disease may produce an abnormally high number of proteins that work to activate inflammation. In addition, NCGS sufferers tend to have an abnormally low number of suppressor T cells, which are needed to reduce inflammation once a potential allergen is removed. This new evidence solidifies NCGS as a true health condition and separates it from celiac disease.
Is there a cure for non-celiac gluten sensitivity?
Like celiac disease, there isn’t a direct cure for NCGS. Instead, it is advised to follow a gluten-free diet once a diagnosis is confirmed.
How to know if you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity?
While you can go to your physician’s office to be tested for NCGS, a blood, stool, or saliva test is not a conclusive way to determine a positive result since these methods have not been validated for confirming NCGS. Instead, it is first advised to be tested for a wheat allergy along with celiac disease. If both these tests are negative, a gluten elimination diet will most likely be the next step. If symptoms improve during the time of elimination, you may be suffering from NCGS.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity vs Celiac Disease
While only celiac disease results in damage to the intestinal tract, is there a difference in the symptoms of NCGS versus celiac disease? Let’s take a quick look:
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
Celiac disease symptoms can vary, but here are some common ailments:
- Bloating and abdominal discomfort
- Gas, diarrhea, constipation, and pale stools
- Muscle cramps
- Joint and bone pain
- Weight loss
- Tingling feeling in the legs
- Dermatitis herpetiformis, a severe skin rash
- Sores in the mouth
- Missed menstrual periods
- Inhibited growth (in children)
What are the symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity?
Like celiac disease, NCGS can cause digestive discomfort, however a 2012 study also revealed that those with NCGS can also suffer from non-GI symptoms as well. Here are some common NCGS symptoms:
- Diarrhea, gas, bloating, and constipation
- Nausea and vomiting
- Mood swings, depression, and anxiety
- Headaches and “feeling foggy”
- Joint pain
- Numbness in the legs, arms, or fingers
- Chronic fatigue
- Skin rash or hives
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity Food List
Whether you’re beginning a gluten elimination plan or managing your NCGS symptoms, you’ll want to stock up on gluten-free foods. Along with fresh fruit, vegetables and leafy greens, and meat, you’ll want to stock up on these NCGS-approved pantry staples:
- Brown rice
- Gluten-free oats
- Almond flour
- Cassava flour
- Tapioca Flour
- Brazil nuts
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Black beans
- Garbanzo beans/chickpeas
- Kidney beans
- Avocado oil
- Canola oil
- Coconut oil
10 Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity Recipes
Short on gluten, big on flavor: Take control of your digestive tract with these NCGS-friendly recipes (and find more here).
Made with superfoods like mulberries, goldenberries, and goji berry powder, this on-the-go breakfast is ideal for busy mornings.
There’s a waffle lot to love about these sweet potato waffles. Top them off with avocado and a fried egg and you might even fall in love.
This gluten-free, Paleo, dairy-free recipe omits the croutons and drizzles massaged kale with a dressing that includes nutritional yeast.
This quick and easy meal makes weekday cooking a breeze. Just toss together chicken breast chunks with snow peas, lime, and cashews for a flavorful, all-in-one dish.
Sure rice noodles work for a gluten-free diet, but shaved carrots add an extra dose of crunch to the South Asian favorite. Top things off with a sauce of almond butter, coconut aminos, ginger, and lime for just the right balance of sweet and savory.
Great for kids and adults who love kid food, this gluten-free nugget update uses light coconut flour and ground flaxseed rather than breadcrumbs for the same crunchy texture.
Pasta is not off the menu on a gluten-free diet. Just toss chickpea spaghetti with everyday staples for this easy recipe that combines garlic and EVOO with wild sardines and capers.
There’s a lot to love about this loaf! The tasty bread comes together with ripe bananas, almond flour, cinnamon, agave, and walnuts.
Warm and comforting, this brown rice pudding is made with non-dairy milk and raw honey and has an unexpected twist with caramelized pineapple.
This moist, citrusy Italian olive oil cake is infused with fresh rosemary and orange zest and coated in a rich, dark chocolate ganache.