columbia | A new study may explain why people who do not have celiac disease or wheat allergy nevertheless experience a variety of gastrointestinal and extra-intestinal symptoms after ingesting wheat and related cereals. The findings suggest that these individuals have a weakened intestinal barrier, which leads to a body-wide inflammatory immune response.
Findings from the study, which was led by researchers from Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC), were reported in the journal Gut.
“Our study shows that the symptoms reported by individuals with this condition are not imagined, as some people have suggested,” said study co-author Peter H. Green, MD, the Phyllis and Ivan Seidenberg Professor of Medicine at CUMC and director of the Celiac Disease Center. “It demonstrates that there is a biological basis for these symptoms in a significant number of these patients.”
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the small intestine after someone who is genetically susceptible to the disorder ingests gluten from wheat, rye, or barley. This leads to a range of gastrointestinal symptoms, including abdominal pain, diarrhea, and bloating.
Researchers have struggled to determine why some people, who lack the characteristic blood, tissue, or genetic markers of celiac disease, experience celiac-like GI symptoms, as well as certain extra-intestinal symptoms, such as fatigue, cognitive difficulties, or mood disturbance, after ingesting foods that contain wheat, rye, or barley. One explanation for this condition, known as non-celiac gluten or wheat sensitivity (NCWS), is that exposure to the offending grains somehow triggers acute systemic immune activation, rather than a strictly localized intestinal immune response. Because there are no biomarkers for NCWS, accurate figures for its prevalence are not available, but it is estimated to affect about 1 percent of the population, or 3 million Americans, roughly the same prevalence as celiac disease.