NEW YORK, July 26 (UPI) -- People with a wheat sensitivity, but not celiac disease or a wheat allergy, are not imagining symptoms they feel after eating wheat, according to a new study.
Researchers at Columbia University Medical Center report people without celiac disease can experience a body-wide immune response to wheat thought to be related to intestinal cell damage and a weakening of the intestinal barrier, which may suggest a method of identifying and treating the condition.
Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder causing an immune response to gluten -- found in wheat, barley and rye -- attacking the lining of the small intestine, causing abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloating.
With growing awareness of celiac disease in recent years, the popularity of a gluten-free diet has also grown. Researchers in other studies have suggested a gluten-free diet is unhealthy in the absence of a condition like celiac disease.
The new study suggests non-celiac gluten or wheat sensitivity, or NCWS, can be identified in patients based on system-wide inflammation after consuming the grains.
"These results shift the paradigm in our recognition and understanding of non-celiac wheat sensitivity and will likely have important implications for diagnosis and treatment," Dr. Umberto Volta, a professor of internal medicine at the University of Bologna, said in a press release. "Considering the large number of people affected by the condition and its significant negative health impact on patients, this is an important area of research that deserves much more attention and funding."
For the study, published in the journal BMJ Gut, researchers examined 80 people with NCWS, 40 with celiac disease and 40 who were healthy.
Though patients with celiac disease show intestinal damage, those patients did not show blood markers indicating systemic immune activation. Researchers say this suggests the intestinal immune response in celiac patients is able to neutralize microbes that in NCWS patients instead pass through the damaged intestinal barrier, triggering a systemic inflammatory response.
Patients in the study with NCWS who consumed a gluten-free diet for six months saw their immune systems calm down and reported symptoms subsided the longer they stayed on the diet.
"Our study shows that the symptoms reported by individuals with this condition are not imagined, as some people have suggested," said Dr. Peter Green, director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. "It demonstrates that there is a biological basis for these symptoms in a significant number of these patients."