Dr. Ryan Shelton, Zenith Labs Medical Research Director Discusses Why Women More Than Men Are Sensitive to Gluten

Gluten sensitivity affects up to 18 million Americans. This common protein found in wheat and other grains is benign for most people, but for people with gluten sensitivity, it can cause significant discomfort. As a result, many people are looking for ways to reduce or eliminate gluten in their diets.

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Among the general population, more women than men are sensitive to gluten. About twice as many women as men have a gluten problem of some kind. This has been documented in several medical studies.

Dr. Ryan Shelton Zenith Labs Medical Research Director explores the reasons why women may have a greater predilection toward gluten sensitivity than men. He also describes the ways in which gluten sensitivity affects people with the condition and offers suggestions for people who are trying to cut gluten out of their diets.

The Nature of Gluten Sensitivity

While gluten allergies and celiac disease are commonly known among medical professionals, the phenomenon of gluten sensitivity was not given much clinical weight until recently. Based on digestive and other symptoms, many people diagnose themselves as “gluten sensitive” and cut gluten out of their diets. Since only about 6 percent of the population actually has celiac disease or a true gluten allergy, many doctors were skeptical of gluten sensitivities.

Recently, medical science has come around to the existence of gluten sensitivity as a distinct condition. An Italian study published in 2014 found that 25 percent of patients who presented with gluten sensitivities tested positive for IgG antibodies, meaning that their bodies are reacting to gluten.

Gluten sensitivity is also associated with irritable bowel syndrome, food intolerance, and IgE-related allergies. 14 percent of the patients in the Italian study who had gluten sensitivity also had another autoimmune disease.

Why are Women More Sensitive Than Men?

Gluten sensitivity is an autoinflammatory condition, and women have a much higher incidence of autoinflammatory diseases than men. This is thought to be caused by the greater number of genes on the X chromosome. More genes on the X chromosome than on the Y chromosome are targeted toward the immune system. This means that there are greater possibilities for mutations to occur. Men are somewhat protected from this higher level of mutations because they have one X chromosome and one Y chromosome.

Women are also much more likely to seek medical care for a persistent problem, while men are more likely to believe it is all in their heads and delay treatment until they have acute symptoms. This is especially true of young men.

Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity

Gluten sensitivity has many troubling symptoms that can mask or be masked by other conditions. The primary symptom reported by most people with gluten sensitivity is abdominal pain. Patients often have nausea, bloating, diarrhea and/or constipation, and acid reflux. Symptoms also affect the system as a whole. These symptoms include headaches, joint and muscle pain, “brain fog”, depression, anxiety, and anemia. Doctors are not sure how gluten sensitivity causes the mental and systemic symptoms, but the phenomenon is still being studied.

Tips for Surviving Gluten Sensitivity

Even though gluten insensitivity is less serious than celiac disease, it is the source of many troubling symptoms. Patients often look anywhere they can to provide relief. The “gluten-free diets” that were a fad in the early 2000s may have given people with real gluten sensitivity a bad name, but the phenomenon made it much more common to see gluten-free products in regular supermarkets.

The most important thing that people with gluten allergies can do is to avoid products made with wheat, rye, and barley. All three of these grains contain high levels of gluten. It can be challenging to determine exactly which foods contain gluten, especially in the case of processed foods. Reading labels is key. For example, many people are not aware that most varieties of soy sauce are made with soy and wheat.

Instead of the top three gluten-containing grains, patients are advised to eat products containing quinoa, brown rice, wild rice, buckwheat, and oats. Not all oats are processed to be gluten-free, and it is a must to check the label when purchasing oat products.

Understanding Gluten Sensitivity

While some people may not be sympathetic to the condition, gluten sensitivity is finally being taken seriously as a medical problem. Avoiding products containing gluten is the best way to prevent symptoms from occurring. People who have unexplained gastric symptoms or who are experiencing systemic issues like headaches and depression may want to experiment with removing gluten from their diets.

Dr. Ryan Shelton Zenith Labs Medical Research Director believes that people with gluten sensitivity should be heard by their doctors and that their symptoms should be taken seriously. Gluten insensitivity is not as severe as a gluten allergy or celiac disease, but it should be recognized as a true disorder rather than a dietary fad.


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