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What is Gluten-Free?

Almost everybody in the United States, Europe and other Western culture countries has heard of “gluten-free.” But. many have no idea what gluten-free actually is or why it is so important. Because of that, you may be wondering exactly “What is gluten-free?”

I’d like to answer that question for you.

Exactly what is gluten-free?

Gluten-free is the term usually applied to a food or a beverage, cosmetics, medicines and other products which DOES NOT contain a substance called “gluten.”

Wheat Head

Wheat in the Field…

Gluten is a substance found in all parts of wheat, barley and rye plants. It’s the part of wheat, barley or rye flour which makes a sticky paste when you add water.

The term “gluten-free” is also used to refer to a person who does not use, eat or drink anything that contains parts of the wheat, barley or rye plants; mainly the grain. Anyone who does that is said to be “gluten-free.”

In general, there are  two groups of “gluten-free-ers”… Those who have a medical condition which requires them to not eat, drink or otherwise ingest a substance containing a protein called “gluten” and those who choose to not eat, drink or otherwise ingest anything containing gluten, usually for a perceived benefit.

First, l would like to talk about some of the medical reasons that a person must be gluten-free.

Medically Gluten-Free

Gluten and Related Allergies

Some people have an allergy to gluten or something that is normally in foods or beverages which contain gluten. It is commonly called a “wheat allergy” or “wheat intolerance” but may also be referred to as a “gluten allergy.”

Allergies can be totally trivial in their effect on the suffer’s body or they can be quite serious condition as with some bee stings or insect bites.

Allergic symptoms can range from something simple like a runny nose or dry eyes to something life-threatening like anaphylactic shock. Some allergic reactions can kill the person that has them if not treated quickly and properly.

I do not deal with gluten allergies, wheat allergies or wheat intolerance in this article.

If you suspect that you have a wheat intolerance or a wheat or gluten allergy, see a physician about your symptoms as soon as possible… It’s important and may save your life!

If you are having or believe that you are having serious allergic-type symptoms, go immediately to the nearest emergency room, critical care facility or dial 911 (or the equivalent in non-US areas) if you can’t get there yourself, quickly.

The rest of this article deals only with non-allergic gluten-free eating and living.

Non-Allergy Gluten-Related Symptoms

People who MUST live gluten-free usually become ill with a wide variety of symptoms which may occur individually or in combination when a “medically, gluten-free” person eats, drinks or otherwise ingests something containing the gluten protein. Those people can also get symptoms from things which get into their mouth, touch their lips or enter their digestive track through their nose when breathing or spraying a substance containing gluten into their nose.

Gluten is common in foods such as bread, pasta, many desserts and other baked goods. Many pre-packaged foods, lip balms and lipsticks, hair and skin products, toothpastes, vitamin and nutrient supplements, and sometimes medicines, may contain gluten.

Researchers have identified between 100 and 300 or so individual symptoms that can occur because of gluten which gets into the digestive tract of “medically, gluten-free” people. The number varies depending upon which “expert” you are reading or listening to.

There are actually two general conditions which include non-allergy, gluten-related symptoms. They are what are referred to as “Gluten Intolerance” and “Gluten Sensitivity.”

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten Intolerance is a condition caused mainly by a disorder known as celiac disease. Almost all the victims of Gluten Intolerance have celiac disease.

There are 4 conditions associated with celiac disease that I want to talk about:

  • Celiac Disease, itself;
  • Refractory Celiac Disease;
  • What I call “Silent Celiac;” and,
  • Dermatitis Herpetiformis.
Celiac Disease

Celiac is a genetic disease which is caused when the victim’s immune system (the part of your body which protects you from sickness causing organisms and many other things that shouldn’t be in your body) attacks the sufferer’s small intestine.

Here is a depiction of the damage caused by celiac disease to the wall of the small intestine of a sufferer…

Celiac Damage to Small Intestine Wall

Celiac Damage to Small Intestine Wall


Celiac disease is what is known as an “autoimmune disease” because it causes the sufferer’s immune system to “automatically attack” the victim’s body instead of foreign substances and organisms. As I mentioned earlier in this article, it has many different symptoms.

Many of those symptoms happen in a way that makes them look like other diseases. Because of that, celiac disease sufferers are often, even today, misdiagnosed as having other, often quite terrifying diseases.

I can’t tell you how many times during my early adulthood and middle age (I’m 69 years old at the time of this writing) that I’ve had expensive, quite unnecessary tests and procedures related to my celiac disease symptoms.

However, because of celiac disease’s tendency to mimic other diseases I believe you absolutely must have your condition reviewed and evaluated by a qualified physician.

For instance, you may decide that you have celiac disease when you actually have severe anemia or intestinal cancer.

The damage celiac disease causes has several, almost immediate as well as some long-term effects.

Almost Immediate Effects

I have had celiac disease almost my entire life although I wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my early 50s.

From a nutritional standpoint, I can’t absorb B-12 from my food and, I can’t absorb Iron either and probably other essential chemicals such as enzymes, minerals and vitamins that haven’t been noticed as being missing from my body. So, I need to take special supplements to get the form of those materials that my body can use. I also have a lot of very visually obvious damage to my small intestine.

When I have an accidental gluten exposure, I have digestive symptoms such as vomiting and diarrhea, and cramps. And, I get symptoms in other parts of my body also such as exhaustion, brain fog and joint pain as well as other symptoms. And that’s only when I accidently eat just a “little bit” of gluten. When I get a large amount of gluten, I will usually be sick for days at a time.

Long-term effects of celiac disease

Unfortunately, not everybody diagnosed with celiac disease will manage their celiac disease properly. And, some people who believe they have celiac disease symptoms often will not go to a doctor who is qualified to diagnose celiac disease and recommend the proper course of action.  And, if they do, they don’t follow their physician’s advice.
Quite frankly, I think this is flat-out’s foolishness! Here’s why…

… Celiac disease has some very serious long-term side effects which if left untreated can cause often devastating and sometimes even fatal illnesses or conditions. Some of the more frequent of those are:

  • malnutrition, a condition in which you don’t get enough vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients you need to be healthy… This can severely damage your body and health
  • accelerated osteoporosis or bone softening, known as osteomalacia
  • nervous system problems
  • problems related to reproduction

… And, infrequent, but very real side effects, include:

  • intestinal cancer
  • liver diseases
  • lymphoma, a cancer of part of the immune system called the lymph system that includes the gut

Refractory Celiac Disease

In rare cases, you may continue to have trouble absorbing nutrients even though you have been following a strict gluten-free diet. If you have this condition, called refractory celiac disease, your intestines are severely damaged and can’t heal. You may need to receive nutrients through an IV.
Celiac disease can be very serious. The disease can cause long-lasting digestive problems and keep your body from getting all the nutrients it needs. Celiac disease symptoms can also appear to affect the body outside the intestine.

What I Call “Silent Celiac”

Occasionally, a blood relative of a diagnosed celiac disease suffer will have a form of celiac disease which I call “silent celiac.” To discuss it in a nutshell… silent celiac has absolutely no symptoms or has such mild symptoms that they are not recognized as being something which must be dealt with immediately and properly.

However, a “silent celiac” victim still gets all of the autoimmune related damage that a celiac disease sufferer with symptoms will experience. That damage is compounded by the fact that there is never any actual management of their celiac disease. And because of that autoimmune damage resulting from ingested gluten never heals and/or their body never gets to “rest” from the constant autoimmune reactions that are caused by unmanaged gluten exposure.

For more information see my article called “Gluten Intolerance, A Silent And Vicious Killer…” If you have celiac disease and you have a blood relative who has no or mild celiac disease symptoms, encourage them to get tested, their life may depend upon it.

All the blood relatives of a celiac disease sufferer MUST be tested for celiac disease. Failure to do so may result in devastating long-term diseases and/or premature death.


Dermatitis Herpetiformis

dermititis herpetifomis

Moderately Severe Dermatitis herpetiformis… Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Dermatitis herpetiformis (sometimes referred to as “DH”) is a skin condition associated with celiac disease. Not everyone who has celiac disease will exhibit the rash or pustules associated with DH. However, all victims of DH will have celiac disease. This picture is a moderately severe example of dermatitis herpetiformis… Yes, it can get worse than what you see in the above picture!

Gluten Sensitivity

Celiac disease is different from gluten sensitivity. If you have gluten sensitivity, you may have symptoms similar to those of celiac disease, such as abdominal pain, tiredness, brain fogs and the like. Unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity does not damage the small intestine.
At the time of this writing gluten sensitivity is not completely understood. The latest research that I am aware of indicates that gluten sensitivity may not be a reaction to gluten at all. Rather it may be an allergy to a group of carbohydrates found in wheat, barley and rye called FODMAPS.
The fact that the symptoms of gluten sensitivity seem to correlate with the symptoms of celiac disease may, therefore, be purely coincidental.

Gluten-Free by Choice

Sometimes it’s a choice to eat and live gluten-free. This is because some people believe that avoiding gluten in their diets will make them healthier, able to do better in sports and probably a few other benefits I haven’t heard about.

The bottom line is that everyone who avoids eating, drinking or ingesting things that contain the gluten molecule do so because they know or believe that they will receive a benefit by avoiding the gluten molecule.