What is gluten allergy?

News about the harmful effects caused by gluten allergy has caused many people to completely remove gluten (wheat) from their diet. However, much of the alarm over gluten allergy and gluten intolerance is unnecessary, not to mention unfounded, since a lot of aspects of these two conditions remain largely misunderstood.


First, what is gluten?

Gluten is an elastic, rubbery protein commonly found in wheat and wheat products. It can also be found in rye, barley, and, to a lesser degree, oats. But gluten can’t be found in rice or maize.

Have you noticed how breads and other baked goods are doughy before they are subjected to heat? The substance that causes that “doughy” characteristic is actually gluten. Gluten also contributes to spongy consistency.

But take note that gluten is only one of the many proteins contained in wheat, rye, and barley. Like all other foods, these foods contain a number of other proteins, which could all cause adverse reactions, including allergies. In addition, many wheat products contain other ingredients and preservatives. Any of these could cause allergic reactions. So what you believe to be gluten allergy could well turn out to be a completely different reaction to substances other than gluten or wheat.

What types of adverse reactions are possible?

Gluten could cause several adverse reactions besides gluten allergy. It is often blamed for intolerance (in this case, wheat intolerance, gluten intolerance, and Coeliac disease). But keep in mind that different mechanisms cause different adverse reactions.

Often, the cause of the confusion is in the similarities of the symptoms. But while gluten intolerance often causes painful symptoms, it rarely is life-threatening. The worst that could happen with gluten intolerance is migraines and bloating or skin rashes.

On the other hand, gluten allergy is largely immunological and, in extreme cases, could lead to death or a condition called anaphylaxis. The symptoms of gluten allergy include swelling of the lips and tongue, red rash, asthma, and urthicaria or hives.

How does gluten allergy occur?

The allergy occurs after the immune system produces large quantities of the antibody immunoglobulin E (IgE) which binds themselves with mast and basil cells, producing inflammation-causing histamine.

The first time your body encounters gluten, it doesn’t yet react adversely to it, but the immune system tags it as a “bad” substance and keeps track of its codes for its own records, in a process called sensitization. The next time gluten is introduced in the body, your sensitized immune system goes on overdrive and starts mass producing IgE, which again bind themselves with mast cells, prompting the release of histamine.

Clinical experience suggests that this type of allergy is relatively uncommon. However, there are no accurate figures for prevalence. The symptoms could occur within minutes or a few hours after eating or inhaling gluten-containing foods. The more common symptoms include the skin: hives, eczema, angioedema or swelling. It could also affect the gastrointestinal tract, causing abdominal cramps, nausea, vomiting, and oral allergy syndromes, and the respiratory tract (asthma or allergic rhinitis).

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