The gluten-free craze sheds light on the fact that many people are developing allergies and intolerances to food products that contain wheat. Barley and rye can also induce reactions as they contain proteins that are similar to wheat.
Allergies to wheat and other grains may be due to the following:
Immediate IgE-mediated allergy – This allergic reaction stems from the body’s production of immunoglobulin E, or IgE, in response to one of the proteins found in wheat. Children are more prone to this reaction, but some adults may also have wheat allergy. This type of allergic reaction may occur in a matter of a few minutes or up to two hours after ingesting the food that contains wheat. Symptoms include asthma, rhinitis, hives, swelling, or anaphylaxis (a potentially life-threatening allergic reaction). Some individuals may also experience abdominal pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and eczema flare-ups.
Wheat-dependent exercise-induced anaphylaxis – People have reported experiencing allergic reactions after eating wheat and then exercising. In some cases, the allergic reactions from this have been so severe that the patient needs an epinephrine shot.
Delayed wheat allergy – This allergic reaction usually occurs several hours or days after eating wheat. The common symptoms of this type of reaction include eczema and diarrhea.
Celiac Disease – This is different than an allergic reaction. It is a response of the autoimmune system to the gluten proteins found in wheat, barley, and rye. The reaction results in damage to the lining of the small intestine and leads to the decreased ability to absorb nutrients from food. This condition can lead to nutritional deficiencies. Symptoms of celiac disease include diarrhea, bloating, nausea, constipation, flatulence fatigue, unexpected or sudden loss of weight, joint and bone pain, hair loss, infertility, and anemia. A skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis may also occur in some patients.
Fermentable carbohydrate intolerance – Some people experience irritable bowel syndrome-like symptoms such as abdominal pain and bloating when they eat wheat. This is caused by fructans, the fermentable carbohydrate found in wheat, barley, and rye. The reaction does not involve the immune system like allergic reactions do. Rather, it stems from bacteria in the large intestine fermenting the fructans that have not been properly absorbed.
Gluten sensitivity – This is a recently-discovered condition. Most experts agree that it does not involve an immune response but rather an inability of the body to properly break down proteins found in wheat.
People with known sensitivity to wheat and similar grains can maintain their health by modifying their diet. This can be difficult, though, because so many foods contain wheat. For true wheat allergies (not intolerances), patients can consider sublingual immunotherapy, a form of food allergy treatment that desensitizes the body to wheat proteins. This is a good long-term solution because it retrains the immune system, allowing people to eat wheat products without compromising symptoms.