You can’t open a health magazine these days without reading story after story about gluten. (Yes, we’re guilty of catering to reader interest when it comes to the controversial grain protein.)
But while our collective gluten obsession has probably gone a little overboard, the science on gluten helps underscore the complexity of our digestive systems and how food-related gut issues emerge.
While there’s no question some people have an allergy to gluten, which is known as celiac disease, there’s a great deal of expert debate regarding the existence of “non-celiac gluten sensitivity”—a condition separate from celiac that’s linked with abdominal pain, headaches, fatigue, and other symptoms.
Throw in the concept of a food “intolerance,” and it’s hard to keep all the terminology straight—let alone the triggers.
“If you have a food allergy, that means your body makes an antibody reaction in response to a food,” says Princess Ogbogu, MD, an allergist and internal medicine expert at Ohio State University. “That antibody causes the body to release histamine, which can lead to hives, shortness of breath, and other symptoms.” Allergies to milk, eggs, and shellfish are all common examples.
Food intolerances, on the other hand, are instances where your digestive system may not produce the enzymes needed to properly break down a food, or may otherwise react improperly to certain foods. This is the case for people suffering from lactose intolerance. Symptoms tend toward abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea, and your immune system’s antibody reactions usually aren’t involved, Ogbogu says. “Food allergies are less common among adults, while intolerances are very common,” she explains.
Sensitivities are a third, harder-to-nail-down category. Your immune system may get involved—though not to the extent that it does if you have an allergy. A lot of it seems dependent on the individual, and there may be some overlap with other gut conditions like irritable bowel syndrome and leaky gut. Again, experts are still sorting all this out. (Here's the single biggest thing you can do for a healthier gut.)
What causes all these food-related gut issues to show up in some people and not in others? That’s tricky. Ogbogu says the human gut is complex, and figuring out how these conditions present is difficult. But there are a few possible or proven triggers.
(Slash your cholesterol, burn stubborn belly fat, solve your insomnia, and more—naturally!—with Rodale's Eat For Extraordinary Health & Healing!)