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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Why Eliminating Gluten May Help Irritable Bowel Syndrome

As noted in previous posts, gluten-free diets (GFDs) have become commonplace for individuals without celiac disease.  Clinically, subgroups of patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) were noted to have gluten sensitivity.  But, these subgroups were difficult to define and the mechanisms of improvement with a GFD were purely speculative.  A new study identifies changes in the frequency of bowel habits and mucosal permeability associated with a GFD among diarrhea-predominant IBS patients (Gastroenterol 2013; 144: 903-11).

While the investigators conducted a trial of short duration (4 weeks) and only enrolled 45 patients, they completed a number of sophisticated studies.

Design: 45 patients were randomized into either a gluten-containing diet (GCD, n=22) or GFD (n=23).  In each group, there were 11 patients who were HLA-DQ2/8 positive.


  • Daily bowel frequency
  • Small bowel and colonic transit
  • Mucosal permeability using lactulose/mannitol excretion.  Lactulose is normally not absorbed except with increased permeability. Mannitol is passively absorbed throughout intestine.  Higher lactulose:mannitol ratio in urine reflects intestinal permeability.
  • Cytokine production
  • Rectosigmoid biopsies (from 28 patients) to analyze messenger RNA for tight junction proteins and immunohistochemical staining

Key Results:

  • Fewer bowel habits were noted in patients receiving GFD.  In this group, bowel habits decreased from ~2.6/day to 2/day.  This was significant compared with GCD group.  Furthermore, this effect was more pronounced among patients positive for HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8.
  • There was no significant change in stool form or ease of passage between GFD and GCD groups.
  • GCD had increased small bowel permeability as shown by mannitol excretion and lactulose-to-mannitol ratio (specific #s Table 1). Again, this effect was more pronounced among patients positive for HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8.
  • GCD group had a reduced mRNA expression of mucosal tight junction proteins.
  • GCD was not associated with significant effects on colonic transit, immunocyte activation, or altered histology (eg. increased intraepithelial lymphocytes, change in crypt:villus ratio).

The increased changes in HLA-DQ2/HLA-DQ8 suggest a role for adaptive immune response in mediating GCD effects on barrier function.

Conclusion: “our data provide mechanistic explanations for the observation that gluten withdrawal may improve patient symptoms in IBS.”

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