People who feel ill after eating wheat but who don't have celiac disease may finally have a biological explanation for their symptoms, a new study suggests.
Researchers from the US and Italy found that people who claim to have "wheat sensitivity" do have biological reactions to gluten proteins in wheat, rye and barley. It's just that the reactions are different from what's seen in people with celiac disease, which is also triggered by gluten.
People with wheat sensitivity have been a very difficult group to identify, because they're mostly all self-diagnosed, said study author Dr. Peter Green, who directs the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University in New York City.
While celiac disease can be confirmed through blood tests and biopsies, the same wasn't true for wheat sensitivity, Green told Reuters Health.
"We had no biomarkers or anything to say they had a disease process going on other than reporting they don’t do well when they eat wheat," he said.
As a result, people would put themselves on a gluten-free diet and ultimately feel better.
For the new study, the researchers analyzed and compared the blood of 80 people who reported wheat sensitivity, 40 people with celiac disease and 40 healthy people without either condition.
In celiac disease, consumption of gluten triggers an autoimmune response that damages the small intestine. The patients with wheat sensitivity had blood tests showing signs of some intestinal damage too — although it wasn't the same kind of damage that's seen with celiac disease, and they didn't have the same pattern of antibodies in their blood that are characteristic of celiac disease.
People with wheat sensitivity also had evidence of a body-wide immune response, which the researchers didn't see in the people with celiac disease.
The results suggest there are identifiable and measurable traits in people with wheat sensitivity that are separate from celiac disease, write the researchers in the journal Gut.
The next step is to get a better understanding of what's happening inside the intestines of people with wheat sensitivity, said Green. Also, the results should be confirmed in US patients, since most of the blood samples for the current study came from people in Italy.
"We’d like to confirm the findings in individuals here, but we need to see them before they go on a special diet," said Green.
The new results confirm the existence that something's going on in people with wheat sensitivity, he said.
"It also raises the likelihood that we’ll be able to develop a test," he added. "Then, we can categorize individuals and treat them appropriately."