The Growth of Gluten Sensitivity and the Genetics Behind It

Ten years ago, few people knew what celiac disease was or talked about gluten sensitivities. But in the last few years, the term “gluten-free” can be found everywhere, from food labels to health blogs.

While we don’t know exactly how many people have celiac disease, it’s estimated to affect 3 million people (or 1% of the population), and the prevalence of undiagnosed celiac disease has increased dramatically over the last 50 years.

Is it really that people are just now becoming insensitive to gluten, or has it always been an ongoing condition that was previously misdiagnosed? Here, we dive into the genetics science behind gluten.

Gluten-Sensitivity and Celiac Disease

Gluten is a protein in rye, barley, and wheat. Gluten is used in dough so the bread can rise, hold its shape, and absorb liquids, like soup. It can also be used as a thickener in sauces.

Neither gluten-sensitivity (or gluten intolerance) nor celiac disease are food allergies, but they are two very different concerns. Some people who are sensitive to gluten may only experience mild symptoms, such as an upset stomach or gastrointestinal issues.

Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder of the small bowel that can cause similar side effects but to a much more extreme level that could potentially lead to death. When they consume foods with gluten, the gluten irritates the gut, and your body reacts as if a toxin is attacking it. As a result, the sufferer may experience nausea, skin rashes, fatigue, or other side effects.

The Problem with Gluten

Because the side effects of gluten-sensitivity and celiac disease aren’t the same for everyone, both often go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed for years. On the other end of the spectrum, some people self-diagnose themselves incorrectly.

According to one study, 86% of individuals who thought they were gluten-sensitive could tolerate gluten. Additionally, around 30% of shoppers choose gluten-free foods, and 41% of U.S. adults think gluten-free foods provide health benefits for everyone, gluten-sensitive or not.

Why the confusion over gluten? Some doctors and scientists believe there’s been an increase in gluten-sensitivity due to environmental and food changes, with theories including:

  • New wheat varieties have a higher gluten content
  • Farmers are using wheat with higher gluten varieties because of their natural insecticide qualities
  • People are consuming more wheat-based products than previous decades

The Gluten Gene

Beyond these agricultural-related theories, some research has led scientists to believe that, because many people of European descent carry the genes for celiac disease, there’s an increased susceptibility to health issues from consuming gluten.

Celiac disease is hereditary and can be passed down through the generations. According to the CDC, a parent, child, or sibling has a one-in-twenty chance of being diagnosed with celiac disease if a family member has also been diagnosed. While only around 1% of the population has celiac disease, between 35 and 40% of the overall population has the celiac disease genes, HLA DQ2 or HLA DQ8. Some doctors also believe those with HLA DQ1 and HLA DQ3 are also predisposed to having gluten sensitivity.

Every person gets one copy of an HLA DQ gene from their mother and a second copy from their father. There are four general types of HLA DQ genes, and the HLA DQ1 and HLA DQ3 genes are further broken down, resulting in many different possible gene combinations. The celiac disease genes are subsets of the HLA DQ3 gene. Depending on the two copies of HLA DQ genes you get, you could develop celiac disease or experience no sensitivities to gluten.

While more research is needed for the greater medical community to accept this theory, it can still provide insight into how your genes and family history can impact your gluten sensitivity. Genetic testing may also be an appropriate option if you’re interested in learning if you have a genetic predisposition for celiac disease. Just remember, even if you have the gene doesn’t mean you have or will develop celiac disease.

Cutting Down on Gluten

In addition to genetic testing, some people reduce or eliminate gluten from their diet for three to four weeks to see how their body responds. You may notice you feel less tired or that you experience fewer stomach issues. Alternatively, even if you have the gene predisposing you for gluten sensitivity, you may not experience any side effects from eating gluten. Conducting a gluten elimination test may be a good place to start.

If you think you have a gluten sensitivity, you can still enjoy bread and cereal. There are several alternatives to gluten, including:

  • Grains other than wheat. Healthy and gluten-free options include brown rice, quinoa, oats, and millet.
  • This is a form of wheat with lower levels of gluten.
  • Sourdough bread. During the fermentation process, some of the gluten protein breaks down. Depending on your level of gluten sensitivity, you may be able to enjoy sourdough bread.
  • Sprouted flour. Sprouted wheat digests as a vegetable, rather than a protein, which is why some gluten-sensitive people can eat it without issues.

If you have celiac disease or are very gluten sensitive, always check food labels to make sure gluten hasn’t been added. Also, don’t reach for those gluten-free cookies, crackers, and pasta just yet. Many gluten-free products are higher in sugar, fat, sodium, and calories to make up for the lack of gluten and improve the flavor and texture.

The Truth About Gluten

While more and more people are talking about gluten, it doesn’t mean more people are becoming gluten-sensitive. Rather, as we learn more about how celiac disease can prevent itself and the genetics behind gluten intolerances, more people are getting testing done and exploring gluten-free diets.

Keep in mind that if you aren’t gluten-sensitive, a gluten-free diet isn’t necessarily healthier or more effective for losing weight. Before giving up gluten for good, consider speaking with your doctor about genetic testing or a temporary food elimination diet.