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Wheat intolerance: Symptoms, causes and how to go wheat-free

What is wheat intolerance and wheat allergy?

Sufferers find foods such as bread and pasta hard to digest. Wheat intolerance symptoms may include joint pains, headaches and bloating that occurs when undigested wheat produces gases in the intestine and makes the abdomen swell. Allergy UK estimates that up to 45 per cent of people in the UK have food intolerance symptoms, but allergies to wheat are much less common and affect less than 1 per cent of the population.

“A true wheat allergy is antibody mediated, is thought to be very rare and involves an immune system response which gives rise to a sudden onset of symptoms such as asthma, urticaria and rhinitis," says Functional Nutrition Consultant and GTG expert Helen Williams.

“A wheat intolerance however, is more common and its symptoms are more varied and differ from one person to another. There can be a delayed onset of symptoms from a few hours or often two to three days later, which makes it very difficult to diagnose.”

Allergies can be diagnosed by an NHS skin-prick test while wheat intolerance can be tricky to identify and may resemble other digestive disorders that produce similar symptoms, for instance irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or coeliac disease.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition where gluten – found in wheat, rye, barley – triggers an immune reaction and the lining of the small intestine is damaged. If you think you may have coeliac disease you should ask your doctor to conduct a blood test to search for antibodies to gluten.

Wheat intolerance symptoms

Here are the five main symptoms which may suggest you have a wheat intolerance, says Helen:

1. Increase in abdominal fat

Did you know that eating two slices of wholewheat bread raises blood sugar more than two tablespoons of pure sugar would? Rapid increases in blood sugar can lead to high insulin levels, which in turn cause the deposition of abdominal fat. It’s been shown that visceral fat (belly fat) is highly inflammatory and in turn can lead to insulin resistance and Type 2 diabetes.

2. Inflammation and general unrest in the body

Coeliac disease is when the body creates antibodies to the gluten in the wheat. However there is another kind of gluten sensitivity - non-coeliac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) caused when the digestive system is unable to break down food containing gluten that results in a more generalised immune system activation. This means that people can be gluten sensitive without having coeliac disease or gluten antibodies and still have the inflammation and other symptoms that can be similar to those of coeliac disease – fatigue, abdominal bloating, flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation or a mixture of both. It is thought that some cases of IBS may be due to NCGS.

3. Skin issues or swollen, painful joints

The inflammation mentioned above can spread like a wildfire throughout the body. It can damage the gut lining leading to systemic inflammation and a whole list of possible symptoms such as joint swelling and pain, and skin issues including psoriasis, acne, eczema.

4. Depression

Depression is a common symptom of gluten intolerance. People with gluten intolerance have low levels of the brain chemical serotonin, which is thought to be a contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness.

5. Experience cravings and binges

Opioid-like breakdown products in wheat can be super addictive and cause cravings and bingeing. The digestive process breaks down proteins in wheat to exorphins called gluteomorphins – gluten and morphine. These are similar to the endorphins or ‘feel good hormones’ you get from a runners high and can bind to receptors in the brain causing cravings, making it very difficult to give up wheat.

Want to test?

If you think you might be suffering from some of these symptoms, Helen recommends a test with registered healthcare professionals, www.cyrexlabs.com.

The symptoms of food intolerance may only show up many hours after eating the problem food. It’s possible to be intolerant to several different foods and so it can be difficult to identify which foods are causing the problem.

What causes wheat intolerance?

Some experts believe people who are wheat intolerant do not have the enzymes needed to digest wheat.

“The growing of grain crops (wheat farming) has only been practiced for around 10,000 years,” says Helen. “Compared to the time humans have been eating other foods in the hunter-gatherer lifestyle (meat, fish, vegetables and fruits) - two-and-a-half million years - that's a very short period. Actually, if you condense our total existence into one week, the time we have been eating grains would only take up one-and-a-half hours of that week!”

“Our bodies just haven't evolved that fast. Our capacity to grow high-yield grain crops such wheat has far outstripped our digestive system's rate of development. In addition, the type of wheat we are eating now is totally different to that which was eaten even in the 1950s. Modern wheat has been hybridized to increase yield, starch and gluten content, so the wheat we consume today bears little resemblance to that of our ancestors.”

Lowri Turner, a TV presenter and qualified nutritionist, who writes a column on food problems for Grazia magazine (lowriturner.com), says: “[The symptoms] are quite a moveable feast which is why so many people think it is a load of rubbish. People say that we never had problems with eating wheat in the past. The problem is we are eating wheat several times a day and overloading our system.”

So while most tolerate some wheat, we are now eating too much: if you are having breakfast cereals, sandwiches for lunch and pasta for dinner, you are having wheat at every meal.

How to deal with wheat intolerance

Turner recommends removing all wheat from the diet for at least two weeks: so no bread, pasta, biscuits, cakes, sauces or shop-bought soups, no bulgur wheat or couscous. Instead, she recommends eating quinoa or buckwheat seeds, eggs, low-fat dairy, tofu, oily fish, chicken and a little red meat. Breakfast could be eggs or yoghurt and berries, a salad for lunch and a stir-fry for dinner. She suggests trying to eat one dish containing wheat after the two-week elimination and monitoring how you feel afterwards.

She also asks clients to keep a symptom diary before and after eliminating wheat from their diet. This will really help to motivate you: it’s hard to stay away from your favourite bowl of pasta without being sure that it is at the root of the problem so you will need to record what you’ve eaten and how your body has reacted (unlike with coeliac disease or wheat allergy, there is no NHS test to show you have a wheat intolerance). We may actually crave the foods that are making us ill.

Turner says: “Reintroduce foods one at a time and if you get a reaction – digestive problems, skin break-outs, a headache – then you may be better off avoiding that food. However, certain factors exacerbate intolerance reactions, notably stress. It is quite common to have had no problems with certain foods and then you have a period of chronic stress and start reacting to all sorts of things. This is because stress affects the immune system. So, if you reduce your stress levels, you may find that your intolerances improve. Also, if you start taking probiotics, which direct the immune system towards tolerance, your intolerances could also improve.

“The key is probably to be open-minded and consider wheat alternatives. There are so many, from bread made from buckwheat (a seed that has nothing to do with wheat), cereal made from puffed rice, pasta made from corn. The ‘free from’ movement is now huge. All of us should be trying to eat a variety of foods anyway so, for good health, we should try to vary the grains we eat so it’s not wheat, wheat and more wheat.”

Wheat intolerance products and treatments

Probiotics may improve digestion through supplementing good bacteria in the gut. She advises taking a probiotic capsule rather than eating probiotic yoghurt, as the dose is higher and adds that the best brand is Proven Probiotics (available from Lloyds Pharmacy or provenprobiotics.com). She also recommends taking a fish oil supplement and 5-Hydroxytrytophan (5 HTP). This is prescribed to regulate moods and help treat anxiety. This is important as wheat intolerance has been linked to depression. She also recommends yoga or t’ai chi to reduce stress levels.

Read more about wheat intolerance

Amelia Freer: which foods contain wheat and why you should cut back

Amelia Freer's gluten-free spicy peppers recipe

Too much wheat? Why going wheat-free might make you healthier

Sarah Vine on hosting a gluten-free dinner party

Why go gluten-free?

Why wheat intolerance might make you sneeze

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