The answer to this question is yes – and no. There is no universally accepted consensus on the optimal way to conduct gluten intolerance tests. But let’s start at the beginning.
What is gluten intolerance?
Gluten is a dense protein principally found in wheat grains, including such varieties as einkorn, spelt and durum. It’s also found in barley, rye and some hybrid grains. Wheat is generated by Mother Nature to act as a storage medium for the seeds within the grain.
For much of human history, bread was the primary way people consumed gluten. Even today, as much as 85% of the protein in bread comes from gluten. In time, our ancestors noticed that if you mixed ground grain – flour – with water, the result was a satisfyingly thick, viscous paste from which other foods could be made – for example, pastry and pasta. It’s the gluten that allows baked goods to rise while keeping their shape, and provides that distinctive, chewy texture.
Gluten is still a widely used ingredient in processed foods of various kinds thanks to these viscous, elastic qualities. In addition to bread and baked goods like cakes, biscuits and pies, you will often find gluten or gluten-based ingredients in:
- Breakfast cereals
- Beers and ales made from barley
- Vegetarian meat substitutes
- Salad dressings
- Condiments and sauces
- Processed meats – eg sausages, hot dogs
- Potato crisps
- Canned soups and soup mixes
- Canned fruits and vegetable sauces
- Vinegar and other products made from malt
- Flavoured dairy products – eg yoghurt and ice cream
Why does all this matter? Because some people react badly to gluten. At the more serious end of things, it can trigger bowel inflammation and autoimmune reactions in which the body attacks itself. This type of reaction, known as coeliac disease, can cause irreversible damage to the intestines. Treatment requires ongoing medical supervision and studious avoidance of gluten. Thankfully coeliac disease is relatively rare, occurring in no more than 1-2% of the population.
Gluten intolerance is more common, affecting around one eighth of the population. People with gluten intolerance struggle to digest this protein and over time their intestines may loosen, allowing the release of poorly digested food molecules and triggering the release of immunoglobulin G4 (IgG4) antibodies. This is sometimes referred to as ‘leaky gut syndrome’. It is completely curable with a balanced diet.
The release of IgG4 antibodies affects individuals in different ways, but for many people the result is such symptoms as constipation or diarrhea, headaches, and bloating.
Milder forms of gluten intolerance that do not involve IgG4 antibodies are often referred to as ‘gluten sensitivity’ or ‘non-coeliac gluten sensitivity’
Common symptoms of gluten intolerance
Other common symptoms of gluten intolerance also vary from person to person but may include:
Fatigue is a common symptom of problems with gluten because, like other chronic conditions, the discomfort can disrupt sleep and over a period of time even bring on depression.
Depression and anxiety
As we saw above, chronic conditions that cause discomfort over a long period of time can trigger depression. Clinically diagnosable depression is surprisingly common, affecting around 6% of adults at any one time.
But there is a strong link between the mind and the body. According to studies, people with a digestive disorder like gluten intolerance are more likely than others to also suffer from anxiety and depression. A number of explanations for this link have been put forward: for example, the digestion of gluten affecting the central nervous system via lower levels of gut flora.
Gluten intolerances of various kinds can manifest as skin reactions, even, in some cases, in the absence of digestive discomfort.
A gluten-free diet has also been linked to improvements in inflammatory conditions like psoriasis, hives and alopecia-related hair loss.
Joint and muscle pain
Joint and muscle pain is another common symptom of the different types of gluten intolerance. The simple discomfort of indigestion can lead us to tense various muscles or sit and stand in ways that strain them.
Digestive disorders could also indicate that a person just has a more sensitive nervous system, a condition which would in turn make them more aware of muscular aches and pains.
Ordering a home-to-lab gluten intolerance test
If you routinely experience uncomfortable symptoms after eating foods containing gluten, your doctor is likely to suggest testing for coeliac disease. This is sensible, since coeliac disease can be serious. If the results come back negative, then that’s great. But you may still have gluten intolerance.
One way to explore that possibility is the so-called elimination diet. This involves removing any foods containing gluten from your diet and observing the results. If the troublesome systems disappear then you can be sure gluten is the culprit.
But an elimination diet can take days, even weeks to complete. An alternative, quicker route to go down is to order a food intolerance test from Health Hub. This is a broad spectrum test that will enable you to assess your body’s reaction to multiple foodstuffs, including:
- Durum wheat
The kit contains a blood collection card, two lancets, a cleansing wipe and adhesive plasters. Use the lancets to take a finger-prick blood sample and send this back in the prepaid mailing bag. In just five days you will receive a detailed but clear and easy-to-understand report, direct from the laboratory.
The test works by detecting levels of a specific antibody – immunoglobulin G4 or IgG4 – which, as we saw above, can be released by the bodies of gluten-intolerant individuals. IgG4 is one of four types of immunoglobulin antibody, labelled, as you may have guessed, IgG1, IgG2, IgG3 and IgG4. This is the most frequently occurring class of antibody, making up around 75% of all those in circulation. However, only two types – IgG1 and IgG4 – are known to respond to food when leaky gut syndrome and similar conditions occur. And of these, IgG4 is the most active in response to food.
Currently at least, there are currently no tests available for non-coeliac gluten sensitivity.