Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye and barley. If a person has gluten intolerance or sensitivity, this protein can cause several symptoms that improve when gluten is eliminated from the diet.
Gluten intolerance is sometimes confused with celiac disease, and the terms are often used interchangeably.
While gluten intolerance is described as an allergic reaction to gluten in the digestive tract, celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder in which gluten leads to intestinal inflammation and long-term damage to the small intestine.
Because gluten is the common trigger, the symptoms of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease are quite similar.
People who are gluten intolerant suffer from a plethora of symptoms upon ingesting gluten. The symptoms can appear right after eating a meal and go away relatively quickly. At times, symptoms can last for several days and may even become chronic.
Since there is currently no test for gluten intolerance or sensitivity, the only way to be diagnosed is to have testing to rule out celiac disease as the cause of the symptoms.
Here are the top 10 signs and symptoms of gluten intolerance.
1. Recurring Headaches or Migraines
If you get a headache or migraine regularly within a couple of hours of eating food that contains gluten, it could be a sign of gluten intolerance.
In a 2001 study, American Academy of Neurology researchers found that gluten in the diet may be the cause of recurring headaches.
A subsequent 2012 study published in Neurology, the official journal of the American Academy of Neurology, found that people suffering from celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) often suffer from migraine headaches.
In this study, 502 patients were examined and 30 percent of patients with celiac disease, 56 percent of patients with gluten sensitivity and 23 percent of patients with IBD experienced chronic headaches.
In addition to gluten, other common food triggers for headaches are sugar, chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, cheese, processed meats and artificial sweeteners.
2. Gastrointestinal Problems
People sensitive to gluten often suffer from gastrointestinal problems upon consuming gluten in any form. This may include gas, bloating, heartburn, abdominal cramping, diarrhea or constipation.
A 2004 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition notes that celiac disease causes a wide range of gastrointestinal symptoms and patients can get rid of the symptoms quickly with a gluten-free diet.
A 2013 study published in Gastroenterology Hepatology found that gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal symptoms develop following the ingestion of wheat in some people suffering from celiac disease or food allergies.
If you experience gastrointestinal problems after eating anything that contains gluten, consult your doctor.
3. Chronic or Extreme Fatigue
Fatigue, especially after eating your meal can be a sign of gluten intolerance. In gluten sensitive people, gluten can prevent the proper absorption of nutrients.
Furthermore, people who are not aware of their condition and continue to eat gluten. This causes irritation to the intestinal lining which in turn hinders proper nutrient absorption.
Due to lack of proper absorption of nutrients, the different body organs of the body are deprived of the nourishment they need. Moreover, eating too much simple carbohydrate at one time can also make one tired and lethargic.
Even hormonal changes in the body due to gluten sensitivity can make one tired and fatigued.
4. Emotional Changes and Issues
People who are sensitive to gluten often experience anxiety and depression symptoms, such as feeling hopeless, lack of interest, low energy, panic attacks, appetite changes, feelings of loss of control, sleep changes, anger and more. Chronic irritability and sudden, irrational mood shifts can also be noticed.
Gluten sensitivity causes the immune system to attack its tissues, thus leading to inflammation of the nervous system. In fact, gluten even interferes with absorption of the amino acid tryptophan, which is responsible for feelings of relaxation.
A 2014 study published in Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics notes that gluten may cause depression in people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
The study also reports that patients feel better on a gluten-free diet despite the continuation of gastrointestinal symptoms.
5. Skin Problems
People who are sensitive to gluten can even suffer from several skin problems, including eczema, acne, psoriasis, keratosis pilaris and dermatitis herpetiformis.
Gluten causes inflammation under the top layer of skin, which can cause rashes, itchiness, burning, redness and even painful blisters. In fact, gluten intolerance also leads to excess keratin protein in the skin, which is not healthy.
Moreover, as gluten has a damaging impact on the gut, it can lead to vitamin A deficiency in the body. This vitamin is essential for healthy skin as well as hair.
A 2006 study published in the European Journal of Dermatology established a link between gluten intolerance and several skin diseases. This study also reports that skin condition improves on withdrawal of gluten-rich foods from the diet.
6. Fibromyalgia-Related Muscle Aches and Pain
Fibromyalgia causes acute muscular and connecting tissue aches and pains. The severe joint and muscle pain can affect your day-to-day activities.
Other symptoms of fibromyalgia include sleep disturbance, fatigue, numbness or tingling sensations and stiffness in the joints. Gluten may be partially to blame.
A 2014 study published in Rheumatology International suggests that non-celiac gluten sensitivity may be an underlying treatable cause of fibromyalgia syndrome.
The study also points out that fibromyalgia patients can achieve remarkable improvement in symptoms with a gluten-free diet.
Gluten can cause inflammation in the body, leading to flare-ups and pain. People who are gluten sensitive also experience joint and muscle pain, and even tingling or numbness in their hands and feet.
If you have fibromyalgia, try eliminating gluten to see if your condition improves.
7. Dental Issues
If you are facing enamel related dental issues such as discoloration (brown, white, or yellow spots) on the teeth, large vertical pits, banding or translucent enamel, it can be a sign of gluten sensitivity.
When people with gluten sensitivity ingest gluten, an immune reaction occurs in the body against one of the main proteins responsible for enamel production.
This in turn leads to a variety of enamel related oral problems. Furthermore, gluten intolerance leads to nutritional deficiencies in the body, which impacts the formation and growth of healthy enamel.
8. Mental Fogginess
A “foggy” mind is another symptom associated with celiac disease. Having ‘brain fog’ can cause problems staying focused and paying attention, as well as lapses in short-term memory.
Deficiencies of iron, vitamin D and folate in the body due to gluten intolerance cause cognitive impairment, leading to brain fog.
Furthermore, systemic inflammation leads to high levels of circulating cytokines, which causes changes in mood and behavior, as well as cognition.
In addition, when people with gluten sensitivity eat gluten, it leads to reduced levels of tryptophan, which is used to make serotonin, an important neurotransmitter.
9. Diagnosis of Autoimmune Diseases
If you have been diagnosed with an autoimmune disease, there is high chance that your body is sensitive to gluten.
In an autoimmune disease, your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body. There are over 80 types of autoimmune diseases, including rheumatoid arthritis, vitiligo, multiple sclerosis, Crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, dermatitis herpetiformis and Type 1 diabetes.
Autoimmunity is the second leading cause of chronic illness, according to the American Autoimmune Related Diseases Association.
With the introduction of a gluten-free diet, your quality of life will improve and possibly even the symptoms of the autoimmune disease.
10. Infertility or Recurrent Miscarriage
If you are not able to conceive or have gone through several miscarriages, it can be a sign of gluten intolerance. When a person who is gluten intolerant eats gluten, it results in inflammation, which in turn makes it difficult to conceive.
Furthermore, gluten is a known hormone disruptor, and can contribute to problems with conception for both men and women.
Before beginning fertility treatments, talk with your doctor about the possibility of gluten intolerance and eliminating gluten from your diet.
Tips for a gluten-free diet:
If you experience symptoms when eating foods that contain gluten, your best defense is to adopt a gluten-free diet. Here are some tips.
- Avoid wheat, couscous, cracked wheat, farina, semolina, barley, and rye. Replace these grains with rice, corn, buckwheat and millet.
- Avoid bread and baked foods, most of which contain wheat.
- Avoid most cereals as they contain some wheat. However, you may try gluten-free cereals or porridge oats. Corn flakes, rice krispies and granola bars containing oats are also supposed to be gluten free but most manufacturers use added flavors and other additives like barley malt and caramel coloring that may contain gluten.
- Instead of the regular flour, opt for gluten-free and wheat-free flour. Consider using white rice four, millet flour, chickpea flour or buckwheat flour.
- In baking, use agar-agar, guar gum, carob flour or potato flour.
- Always check ingredient labels before purchasing anything.
- It is better to prepare food at home instead of eating out. You can control the ingredients at home.
- Many prescribed and over-the-counter drugs contain wheat, so check with your doctor about the medications you are using.