Gluten: Could You Be Allergic?

By Neal D. Barnard, MD Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University School of Medicine President of the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine in Washington, DC Author of the 21-Day Weight Loss Kickstart

Posted on | By Neal D. Barnard, MD

Do you have digestive troubles? Or maybe you suffer with bouts of mental fogginess? If so, the reason might be hiding in your kitchen. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. For most people, it is nutritious and digestible. But for about 1 in 10 adults, gluten causes serious problems, showing up as intestinal distress and mental fuzziness.

Here's an example: Joan was a 35-year-old real estate agent. After returning from a vacation abroad, she experienced cramps and diarrhea that dragged on for nearly a month. Thinking she had picked up a bug, she made an appointment with her doctor. However, tests showed no infection, and the doctor suggested she might have irritable bowel syndrome. Over the next few months, she tried various over-the-counter medications, but her symptoms continued. She eventually saw a gastroenterologist. After a number of specialized tests, he reassured her that her intestinal tract was fine. But as her problems continued and fatigue and memory lapses started to set in, she began to worry that she had a serious illness that her doctors had not been able to diagnose.

One day, a friend suggested that she might see if avoiding gluten made any difference. So, she stopped eating gluten-containing foods. And bingo! That was it. Within 48 hours, she felt dramatically better, and within a few weeks, her symptoms were gone.

An Emerging Understanding

Gluten-related problems are increasingly common. Partly, this is due to better awareness, but it may also be due to the fact that bread is made differently these days. Old-fashioned home-baked breads had plenty of time to rise, and the leavening process broke up some gluten. Modern bakeries turn out bread more quickly, giving less time for the leavening process. Also, food companies continue to experiment with new grain varieties, some of which may be more concentrated in gluten. 

Until recently, many doctors doubted that a simple slice of bread or serving of pasta could cause health problems for very many people. But that has changed. We now know that gluten-related issues are fairly common. We also know how to tell who can eat these foods safely and who cannot.

Article written by Neal D. Barnard, MD
Adjunct Associate Professor of Medicine at the George Washington University School of MedicinePresident of the Physicians...