What is Gluten and Why Is It Bad for Some People?

What is Gluten and Why Is It Bad for Some People?

5 minute read time

Getting to grips with gluten can feel like a minefield, but it doesn’t have to be that way.
Whether you’ve recently been diagnosed with a gluten-related condition or you’re researching for a loved one, you’ve come to the right place to understand gluten proteins and how to deal with them.

What is Gluten?

Gluten is found in grains such as wheat, barley, rye and spelt and is used to bind foods together in baking. It’s what you’ll usually find in the likes of bread, thanks to the elasticity it provides for the flour mixture when water is added.

The proteins can also be found in many other liquid-based consumables like sauces and gravies. Gluten is employed as a thickening agent, so it can easily sneak into a diet undetected – that is, until the gluten intolerance symptoms arise in sufferers after it is consumed.

Why is Gluten bad for some of us?

Some people suffer from gluten-related conditions that cause unpleasant, uncomfortable and sometimes debilitating reactions in their immune systems. A gluten intolerance, for instance, means that gluten proteins are treated as foreign bodies when they enter a digestive system, so an inflammatory response (an IgG response, in the case of an intolerance) is triggered to fight them. This response can manifest itself as anything from bloating and abdominal pain, to nausea and vomiting.

The severity of these responses depends upon the condition the person is suffering from and their reactiveness to gluten proteins therein. A gluten intolerance can appear later in life, sometimes with mild symptoms, whilst celiac disease is a life-long, autoimmune condition that causes much more severe reactions that can damage the gut wall and lead to malnutrition.

What are the most common Gluten health conditions?

There are a number of ways in which people can suffer from reactions to gluten, so it’s crucial to understand the differences before you drift into the realms of self-diagnosis or misdiagnosis. Here are the most common gluten-related conditions:

Celiac disease: This is the most serious gluten-related condition as it can have detrimental effects on a sufferer’s wider health and wellbeing. Its symptoms can be severe, so gluten must be entirely eradicated from their diet.

Gluten intolerance: An intolerance to gluten produces similar symptoms to those of celiac disease, but they are often less severe and can take longer to surface. Symptoms can include diarrhea, constipation, bloating, headaches and tiredness.

Wheat allergy: An allergy to wheat can comprise of reactions to any one of four proteins that are found in it: albumin, globulin, gliadin and gluten. Allergies to gluten specifically are rarer than the rest, and are also commonly mistaken for celiac disease.

Wheat intolerance: An intolerance to wheat means that a person can experience the same symptoms as a gluten intolerance, but it doesn’t mean that they have both conditions. They might only be intolerant to albumin, for example, but not to gluten. A person who is gluten intolerant is also wheat intolerant because gluten proteins are found in wheat, so this means that a wheat intolerant person won’t necessarily have to avoid gluten if they are reactive to a different protein.

What are the first signs of Gluten intolerance?

Most sufferers report digestive discomfort as their first noticeable symptom of a gluten intolerance. This is commonly described as abdominal pain and can be linked to bloating, constipation or diarrhea.

It’s all too easy for people to put discomfort down to a bad meal or an off day and it’s an issue that’s made worse by the fact that the symptoms can take up to three days to appear after gluten has been consumed. However, it’s important to seek help from a doctor if signs and symptoms are appearing and, of course, if they’ve appeared more than once.

How long after eating Gluten do symptoms start?

Many people start noticing signs of gluten intolerance within 6-48 hours of consumption. For people with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, symptoms of gluten exposure usually begin between a few hours to a few days after eating foods that contain gluten. Gut inflammation usually sets in within 6 hours. Bloating, pain, and diarrhea often start anywhere from 12 hours to 2 days later as the gluten works its way through the intestines. 

However, the timing and severity of symptoms can vary quite a bit from person to person. Some people experience near immediate gastrointestinal upset that subsides quickly, while others report more delayed onset of symptoms that persist for many days after gluten exposure. Factors like the amount of gluten consumed and the extent of intestinal damage also impact the reaction time. With severe gluten intolerance, even small traces of cross-contamination can trigger a faster response.

How long does Gluten stay in your system?

For most people, gluten typically stays in the system for between 24-72 hours after being ingested. Gluten proteins are relatively large molecules that the body does not fully digest. After being eaten, gluten passes through the stomach and reaches the small intestine within a few hours. It takes about 2-6 hours for food to transit through the small intestine, which is where most gluten absorption happens. From there, any remaining undigested gluten travels to the large intestine where transit time ranges from 12-72 hours.

Throughout this journey, different enzymes work to break down gluten proteins into amino acids. For those with impaired gluten digestion, larger peptide fragments can remain in the intestines for a day or more, contributing to symptoms. After gluten exposure, intestinal biopsy samples may show immune reactions for up to 4 weeks. However, the bulk of the gluten gets eliminated within the first couple of days. Strictly adhering to a gluten-free diet allows the system to fully clear.

Foods to avoid if you have a Gluten intolerance

When following a gluten-free diet, it’s important to be aware that gluten can be found in wheat, rye and barley, as well as foods made using these grains. Gluten is often used as a thickening agent or additive in many processed foods, sauces and even some meat products. Identifying all potential sources of gluten isn’t an easy task, so make sure to carefully check the ingredient labels on packaged foods for any traces of the following:

  • Wheat (starch, bran and germ)
  • Couscous
  • Cracked and durum wheat
  • Emmer
  • Farina
  • Faro
  • Gliadin
  • Kamut
  • Matzo
  • Semolina
  • Spelt
  • Bulgur
  • Barley, barley malt, malt extract or malt flavoring
  • Rye

Common Gluten-free foods

Luckily, there are many nutritious and delicious foods that are naturally gluten-free: 

  • Fruits and vegetables – All fresh fruits and vegetables are gluten-free. This includes produce like apples, oranges, bananas, potatoes, broccoli, tomatoes, carrots, etc.
  • Meat and Poultry – Beef, chicken, pork, fish, eggs and other meats are naturally gluten-free as long as they are not breaded, fried or marinated in gluten-containing sauces. Check out our Gluten-free BBQ guide for tasty meat recipes.
  • Dairy – Milk, plain yogurt, cheese, butter and other unflavored dairy products do not contain gluten. Look for brands that are certified gluten-free.
  • Grains – Options like rice, corn, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, amaranth and certified gluten-free oats make good substitutes for wheat.
  • Nuts and Seeds – Almonds, walnuts, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds and nut butters are safe gluten-free choices.
  • Beans and Legumes – All types of dried or canned beans are naturally gluten-free, including black beans, kidney beans, chickpeas, lentils and soybeans.
  • Oils and Vinegars – Olive oil, coconut oil, vegetable oil, balsamic vinegar, apple cider vinegar and distilled vinegars are generally gluten-free. Avoid malt vinegar.

Is there a test for Gluten sensitivity?

Upon receiving a recommendation from a doctor, there are Food Sensitivity Tests by YorkTest that you can take to get to the bottom of your apparent gluten-related condition. Rather than risk a self-diagnosis, our tests use lab-developed methods to gauge your IgG reactions to foods and drinks for intolerances and your IgE reactions for allergies.

They do not test for celiac disease, but the results can help a doctor eliminate the possibility of other conditions during a diagnosis as such. If you’re worried that you or a loved one might be suffering from a gluten-related condition, a doctor’s advice must be sought out before taking one of our tests.


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