Is this problem I have with wheat and/or gluten an allergy or an intolerance, and why is this an important distinction?
An allergy is an "abnormal immune system reaction" that may cause hives, difficulty breathing, nausea, and in extreme cases, a life-threatening reaction such as anaphylaxis (according to the Mayo Clinic website). That is not what I have.
The way Dr. Hamman, the naturopathic doctor in San Francisco that helped me figure out my wheat problem initially in 2002, explained a wheat or gluten intolerance is still the definition that makes the most sense to me. And, it applies to any food intolerance. If it turns out that wheat is not a problem, but that you have a problem with corn, sugar, soy or dairy, the effects are the same or similar. What she said is that if you have a food intolerance, it means that your body cannot digest something. It's not like an allergy since the problem is in your body's ability to digest it, so it doesn't show up on allergy tests. But, when you eat something that your body cannot digest, the villi in your intestines get irritated in the process of trying to digest it, and since they are irritated, it prevents you from getting and absorbing the nutrients in ANYTHING you eat. This is why a lot of people with intolerances have vitamin deficiencies (such as anemia) and excessive weight gain or loss. If you're curious, her website is http://drvictoriahamman.com/.
From my perspective, this is an important difference, as well, because while I'm the first to admit that it is not easy to go on a no-wheat diet, it is also a very simple thing to test out. And it is something that you can do right away on your own. Dr. Hamman said that you can find out if you have a problem with any specific food if you cut it out of your diet for three weeks, then add it back in all at once. My experience with going off wheat was that I started feeling better pretty quickly, and it sounds like our family friends have had a similar experience (once they realized that there was a soy allergy, too). I didn't need three weeks to know that I felt better without wheat. And, it is a lot easier to do this now than in 2002! Even if you don't live in a place that has gluten-free items in the supermarket or a great local gluten-free bakery, you can order a bunch of gluten free food from Amazon.com or any of the other online sites that come up when you type in "gluten free" to google. Even Betty Crocker is now in the gluten free business (http://www.bettycrocker.com/products/gluten-free). :)
In fact, I didn't realize that you could diagnose gluten intolerance with a blood test until this year when our family friends were just diagnosed with Celiac disease that way. And, as I mentioned in an earlier post, as I learned in my case, the labs definitions of "normal" may not reflect true problems. Thus, people who go this route may be told they don't have a problem when they do.
There is a "Gluten Free RN" here in Corvallis that our family friends went to and really liked. Her name is Nadine Grzeskowiak, and she is a Registered Nurse who specializes in gluten intolerance and celiac disease. I went to her hour-long class a few weeks ago, and found it very interesting. Nadine has first-hand experience with this since she had some very serious health problems that were not diagnosed, and was finally diagnosed with celiac disease by a dermatologist she went to see because of her skin issues. She has more information and resources on her website at http://glutenfreern.com/. She gave me a link to a website of symptoms of gluten intolerance at http://www.celiaccentral.org/disease-symptoms-checklist/. For more information about gluten intolerance, you can also check out http://www.webmd.com/digestive-disorders/celiac-disease/celiac-disease-symptoms. If you try going off gluten, feel better, and want to get an actual diagnosis, there are tests you can get. According to Nadine, the most accurate test to diagnose gluten intolerance is a stool sample test (that you send to Texas).
If you want to read more about wheat and gluten allergies, there is some interesting information at http://www.wheat-free.org/wheat-allergy.html, http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/wheat-allergy/DS01002, and http://www.faiusa.org/