What Are the Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects roughly 3 million people in the United States. It is a condition triggered by gluten consumption which results in damage to the small intestine. There are a wide range of symptoms that have been linked to celiac disease which is what makes it so tricky to diagnose. There are also several related conditions – gluten sensitivity is one.
Gluten sensitivity is also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity. It is triggered by gluten consumption, but it affects the body in a different way than celiac disease.
Keep reading to learn more about what gluten sensitivity is and how to manage it.
What is Gluten Sensitivity?
When it comes to gluten-related conditions, there are several on the list. Celiac disease is the most severe – it is an autoimmune disease where gluten consumption triggers the immune system to launch an attack, accidentally damaging intestinal tissues in the process. Gluten intolerance is also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity because it is related to gluten consumption but doesn’t have an autoimmune component.
Gluten sensitivity affects an estimated 18 million Americans – that’s more than 6 times the number of people who have celiac disease. Though researchers are just starting to explore this condition, there are a few things to know:
- Gluten sensitivity shares many symptoms with celiac disease such as bloating, belly pain, joint pain, and brain fog.
- This condition has been recognized as clinically less severe than celiac disease.
- People who have gluten sensitivity do not test positive for celiac disease based on blood tests.
- Though individuals with gluten sensitivity do not have the same type of intestinal damage as celiac sufferers, they may experience mild damage that goes away with a gluten free diet.
- Gluten sensitivity does not result in increased intestinal permeability (leaky gut syndrome) like celiac disease.
Researchers have identified specific genes linked to celiac disease, but there is still a great deal more to learn about non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Some research suggests that the condition may not be related to gluten alone but also to a group of poorly digested carbohydrates called FODMAPs.
What Are the Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity?
Both celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are frequently misdiagnosed because they present with such a wide array of symptoms. Here are some of the main symptoms of gluten sensitivity:
- Bloating – This is a feeling of being swollen or full of gas after eating, and it is a very common symptom for gluten sensitivity. In fact, one study showed that 87% of people who were suspected to have this condition experienced bloating on a regular basis.
- Diarrhea – Occasional diarrhea is typically nothing to worry about, but if it happens regularly it might be a symptom of gluten sensitivity related to inflammation in the gut. More than 50% of people who have gluten sensitivity experience regular diarrhea.
- Constipation – Not only can gluten sensitivity cause diarrhea but, for about 25% of individuals, it causes constipation as well. This is linked to gluten-mediated damage to the digestive tract.
- Abdominal Pain – Though abdominal pain and cramping can be linked to many health problems, it is the single most common symptom of gluten intolerance, affecting up to 83% of sufferers.
- Headaches – Migraines have affected over 20% of people at some point in their lives, but research suggests that gluten-intolerance people are more prone to migraines than others.
- Fatigue – Occasional daytime tiredness is normal – especially if you’ve had a poor night of sleep. When it occurs regularly and interferes with daily function, however, it may be a sign of a health problem like gluten sensitivity. Some studies show that 60% to 82% of gluten-intolerance individuals experience frequent tiredness and fatigue.
- Skin Problems – Many people fail to recognize the connection between gluten intolerance and skin problems, but digestive symptoms only appear in about 10% of celiac sufferers. Gluten sensitivity can contribute to skin problems like psoriasis, alopecia areata, and chronic urticaria as well as a blistering skin condition known as dermatitis herpetiformis.
- Depression – Just over 6% of American adults experience depression each year, and people with digestive problems are more prone to depression and anxiety. Some theories that may explain the link include abnormal serotonin levels, exorphins produced during the digestion of gluten, and changes to the microbiome in the gut.
- Weight Loss – Unexplained weight loss is always cause for concern, and it is a common side effect of undiagnosed celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. According to one study, nearly two-thirds of undiagnosed celiac sufferers had lost weight in the 6 months leading to diagnosis.
- Anemia – Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease can impair nutrient absorption which leads to nutritional deficiencies such as iron-deficiency anemia. This contributes to symptoms such as low blood volume, dizziness, weakness, and shortness of breath.
- Autoimmune Disease – Having one autoimmune disease (like celiac disease) puts you at a higher risk for developing other autoimmune disorders. It is unclear yet whether gluten sensitivity also increases the risk for autoimmune disease, but it is possible.
- Joint Pain – Some research suggests that people with gluten-related disorders have an over-sensitive nervous system which may contribute to joint and muscle pain. Gluten can also trigger inflammation in people who are sensitive to it, adding to widespread joint pain.
- Numbness – Neuropathy, or numbness and tingling in the arms and legs, is a surprising symptom of gluten intolerance. The exact cause is unknown, but it may be related to the antibodies produced by the immune system in cases of gluten intolerance.
- Brain Fog – This symptom affects roughly 40% of gluten-intolerance individuals and the exact cause for it is unknown. Brain fog is an inability to think clearly that also has a cloudy aspect to it and a feeling of mental fatigue.
These symptoms may appear in any combination which is what makes it so difficult to accurately diagnose celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. If you’re concerned that you have some of the symptoms on this list, it may be worth talking to your doctor. You might need blood tests or other clinical exams to determine whether you have celiac disease and, if not, whether it might be gluten sensitivity.
Tips for Managing Gluten Sensitivity
The first step in managing gluten sensitivity is to talk to your doctor. If you’ve been experiencing symptoms from the list above, your doctor may recommend a blood test to rule out the possibility of celiac disease or other underlying health problems. Once your diagnosis of non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance has been confirmed, you can start taking steps to manage the condition.
Here are a few simple things you can do to manage gluten sensitivity:
- Keep a food journal for a week or two and pay attention to your symptoms to determine if you really have gluten sensitivity or if your symptoms can be attributed to something else.
- Learn which foods contain gluten – it is a type of protein found in wheat, barley, and rye so you can expect to find it in things like bread, pasta, crackers, and baked goods.
- Take the time to read food labels before you buy – check the allergen warning for wheat (which is often suggestive of gluten content) and the ingredients list.
- Remove gluten-containing foods from your fridge and pantry – if you share a living space, you may want to store gluten-containing and gluten-free foods separately.
- Be mindful of cross-contamination at home and when eating out – avoid shared utensils and cleaning supplies that have been used for gluten-containing foods.
- Learn how to cook with gluten free alternatives such as nut flours and gluten free baking mixes.
- Choose naturally gluten free foods over processed alternatives – fresh meat, seafood, fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are almost all gluten-free.
- When buying packaged gluten free foods, look for products labeled “certified gluten free” to ensure the utmost safety. All Schär products are certified gluten free, made with quality ingredients, and have zero preservatives.
- Cook for yourself rather than eating out or buying prepared meals – you can best control cross-contamination when you do the cooking yourself. If you choose to buy prepared meals, consider gluten free meal kits such as Green Chef that have gluten free plans.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions – if you’re not sure that something is gluten free you should reach out to the brand or avoid the item to just to be safe.
- Keep in touch with your doctor and report any recurring symptoms or new symptoms that arise because they could be indicative of another health problem that needs to be treated.
Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease affect people in many different ways. This being the case, you’ll need to listen to your own body to determine how much gluten you can tolerate (if any) and what other lifestyle or dietary changes help mitigate your symptoms. If you really want to keep your condition under control, the best option is to cut gluten out of your diet completely.