Wheat Intolerance Syndrome?

Even though we’ve lived in our house for many years, some of our neighbors refer to our house as the ‘Walden’ house; the Waldens lived here for a long time before we did. Probably when we move, our neighbors will call our present home the “Hochman” house, regardless of who resides there.

I think nomenclature in medicine has a similar reluctance to adopt new terms.  A recent medical progress report (Guandalini S, Polanco I. J Pediatr 2015; 166: 805-10) suggests dropping the term “Nonceliac gluten sensitivity” (NCGS) in favor of “Wheat Intolerance Syndrome.”

It’s probably a good idea and their arguments are sound. Two key points:

  • “There is no proof that gluten is causing NCGS.”
  • It is likely that the majority of patients considered NCGS have not even eliminated celiac disease before instituting a gluten-free diet.

With regard to the first point, the authors note that recent studies have suggested that a “FODMAP” (fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols) diet is likely the culprit in many cases of so-called NCGS.  They review a pivotal double-blind study (see related blog post: An Unexpected Twist for “Gluten Sensitivity” | gutsandgrowth) there was no role for gluten “at least in these patients with IBS-like NCGS.”  In addition, other studies have demonstrated a strong role for a placebo/nocebo effect of dietary elimination.  “It is quite conceivable that a portion of patients with NCGS, and arguably a substantial one, fall in this category.”

With regard to the second point, it is not a good idea to initiate a gluten-free diet before excluding the diagnosis of celiac disease (hence the prior term: “nonceliac” gluten sensitivity).  A related comment from the authors is that a “Grade 1 [Marsh] intestinal lesion has traditionally been considered of a very low specificity for celiac disease.”  More testing in this circumstance can help determine if celiac disease is the reason, including checking the levels of ϒδ T-cell receptors in intraepithelial lymphocytes (very specific for celiac disease) and/or detection of IgA anti-tissue transglutaminase antibody deposits in intestinal mucosa.

Other pointers:

  • Genetic testing for HLA-DQ2 and/or HLA-DQ8 genotypes (which are nearly 100% in celiac disease) are present in about 40% of NCGS which does not differ from the general population
  • “Estimating the prevalence of NCGS is impossible.”  Estimates have ranged from 0.6% of the U.S. population to as high as 50% according to some websites.

Bottomline: While “Wheat Intolerance Syndrome” works fine for me, I think the term nonceliac gluten sensitivity is going to be around for a while.  Hopefully, more families and care providers will exclude celiac disease before contemplating this label and consider other foods as potential contributors to the symptomatology.

Related Reference: “Coeliac Disease and Noncoeliac Gluten Sensitivity” Meijer CR, Shamir R, Mearin ML. JPGN 2015; 60: 429-32.  This reference covers much of the same territory.  The Table 1 in this article nicely summarizes the relevant literature/studies from 2008-2014.

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9 thoughts on “Wheat Intolerance Syndrome?

  1. This is a really nice article, Dr. Hochman. I am an Allergist/Immunologist and I am often asked about wheat/gluten/etc. If I can throw an idea at you, I’d love to see your take on “yeast overgrowth” or similar concerns. Keep up the good work!
    Brian Smart, MD
    An Allergist/Immunologist’s Guide To Living Well

    • Thanks for the feedback. Most of my posts are based on review of recent publications. I will keep my eye out for “yeast overgrowth.” As you know, yeast is normally present in the GI tract and most of the time (in healthy hosts) this does not lead to any pathology.

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