"The symptoms reported by individuals with this condition are not imagined, as some people have suggested."
Black Seed Bagels
Credit: © Daniel Krieger

For anyone whose ever rolled their eyes at a friend's insistence they can't stomach wheat, new research may explain their apparent sensitivity to the grain.

Though the gluten-free movement has become one of the biggest trends in food, only about one percent of people actually have celiac disease, the autoimmune disorder that damages the small intestine when digesting gluten via wheat, barley, or rye. So what about everyone else shunning wheat in favor of sans-gluten eats? Researchers at the Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) set out to determine whether non-celiac wheat sensitivity occurs in the body or merely the mind.

The results, published in the journal Gut, claim that there is a biological reason those without celiac or a wheat allergy can still suffer from gastrointestinal symptoms after consuming the grain. According to Science Daily, a weakened intestinal barrier could be to blame for those wheat-induced belly aches. Individuals with a weaker barrier can in fact experience "a body-wide inflammatory immune response" to products containing gluten.

The team at CUMC examined 80 participants with a non-celiac sensitivity, 40 with celiac disease, and 40 controls who experienced neither. Though the bodies' responses to the intake of gluten were different, across both forms of sensitivity, the gut was effected due in part to intestinal cell damage and that weakened barrier.

"Our study shows that the symptoms reported by individuals with this condition are not imagined, as some people have suggested," says study co-author Peter Green, MD, a professor at CUMC and director of the Celiac Disease Center. Rather, this newfound reason behind the intolerance "demonstrates that there is a biological basis for these symptoms," Green adds. Though patients may not show markers of celiac disease in their blood, many still exhibit the same symptoms as celiac sufferers following the consumption of gluten, including fatigue, mood shifts, and gastrointestinal issues.

On a hopeful note, the authors report that the non-celiac patients who followed a wheat-free diet for six months were then able to normalize their intestines, and repair previous cell damage from the consumption of the gluten-laden goods. Study leader Armin Aledini, PhD, says that "in the future, we may be able to use a combination of biomarkers to identify patients with non-celiac wheat sensitivity, and to monitor their response to treatment." So—the next time your friend asks what's gluten-free on the menu, remember it might not only be in their mind; it could be in their gut.