Gluten intolerance has become an increasingly common problem over the last decade. The signs of gluten intolerance are varied, and can often present as something else. For this reason, gluten intolerance can be difficult to diagnose.
Knowing the signs of gluten intolerance can help you to pinpoint the cause of your discomfort. This way you can take the appropriate steps to reduce your symptoms and live your life in comfort.
Gluten Intolerance Vs. Celiac Disease
Gluten intolerance has been a somewhat controversial issue since it has become an increasingly common health issue. People experiencing symptoms are certain that gluten is the source of their pain, while others argue that gluten sensitivity isn’t a legitimate complaint.
The main source of the argument is that many people use the terms gluten sensitivity and celiac disease interchangeably. These two conditions, however, have are markedly different:
Celiac Disease: this is an autoimmune disease that affects only about one percent of the population. It is the most severe form of gluten sensitivity, and can cause damage to the digestive system. If you don’t treat it, celiac disease can eventually lead to stomach cancer . Celiac is an autoimmune condition (not a ‘wheat allergy’) and is diagnosed by your doctor using serologic and genetic testing.
Gluten Sensitivity: You will often hear people refer to gluten sensitivity as non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS), or sometimes gluten intolerance. It is an adverse reaction to gluten that does fall under the clinical umbrella of celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity is not autoimmune-related and is much milder than celiac disease. While many of the symptoms do overlap NCGS is not associated with complications of celiac disease [2,17].
Unlike celiac disease, there is no reliable way to diagnose a gluten sensitivity. For this reason, experts estimate that anywhere from 0.5 to thirteen percent of the population may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity .
Is Gluten Sensitivity Real?
Because the symptoms are so varied and it is difficult to accurately diagnose, there are many people who don’t believe non-celiac gluten sensitivity is real. But what does science say?
One study split 59 participants who suspected they had a gluten sensitivity into two groups. They gave each group either a capsule containing gluten, or a placebo containing rice starch for one week. After that week, they swapped the groups. Whenever the participants received the gluten-containing capsule, they experienced increased symptoms like abdominal pain, gas, headaches, tiredness, bloating, and brain fog .
Researchers performed another study with a similar format, this time with over one hundred non-celiac participants. Just like with the first study, participants reported increased symptoms and decreased quality of life during the week of taking the gluten supplement .
Both of these studies prove that gluten sensitivity is real, and it does affect people’s quality of life.
The Signs of Gluten Intolerance
The trouble with diagnosing gluten sensitivity is that the symptoms vary widely, and they can be very non-specific. This makes it difficult to distinguish the signs of gluten intolerance from other health issues and autoimmune diseases.
That being said, knowing the signs of gluten intolerance can help you figure out whether gluten is what’s causing your discomfort. While many people are familiar with the digestive symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity, there are many other less obvious signs that may be telling you that you need to eliminate it from your diet.
1. Skin Problems
Gluten intolerance can cause a variety of skin issues including a flushed complexion, acne, and rashes. If you are experiencing skin issues that don’t seem to have any other logical explanation, you may want to look at your diet for clues.
Several different skin conditions have shown improvement while on a gluten-free diet, including:
Psoriasis: scaling and reddening of the skin.
Alopecia areata: an autoimmune disease that causes non-scarring hair loss.
Chronic urticaria: recurrent, itchy, pink or red lesions with pale centers .
2. Headaches and Brain Fog
Migraines are a very common condition, but studies have shown that people with gluten intolerance may be more prone to migraines than others .
Brain fog, or the feeling of not being able to think clearly, is a common sign of gluten intolerance. Many people describe it being forgetful, having difficulty thinking, feeling “cloudy”, or having mental fatigue. This symptom affects up to forty percent of people with a gluten intolerance .
Feeling bloated is one of the most common complaints of individuals with a gluten intolerance. Because this uncomfortable feeling often occurs soon after eating, it can be one of the easiest ways to pinpoint a gluten sensitivity.
One study found that up to 87 percent of people who thought they might have a gluten sensitivity experienced bloating .
4. Numbness and Joint Pain
People don’t often associate these symptoms with gluten intolerance. Instead, they typically chalk it up to just being tired. People who have gluten sensitivity, however, may experience inflammation when they consume gluten. This can cause widespread pain in both their joints and muscles . It is still unclear if gluten causes joint pain in those without preexisting conditions, like arthritis for example.
5. Constipation, Diarrhea, and Gas
Frequent digestive discomfort, including diarrhea and constipation, are common issues with celiac disease. People with gluten sensitivity, however, can also experience these symptoms. More than fifty percent of people with gluten sensitivity report experiencing frequent diarrhea, and 25 percent of them experience constipation .
This is another sign of gluten intolerance that may go unnoticed. While feeling tired is very common and can be for a multitude of reasons, constant fatigue and lethargy is usually a sign that something is wrong.
People with a gluten intolerance may often notice that they feel tired or sluggish, especially after they eat foods that contain gluten. In fact, anywhere from sixty to over eighty percent of gluten-intolerant individuals frequently experience these symptoms .
7. Depression and Anxiety
There are a few theories to explain the possible link between gluten intolerance and depression:
- Serotonin problems. People often refer to serotonin as the “happiness hormone”. People with gluten intolerance may have decreased serotonin levels, which can lead to depression .
- Gluten exorphins. Exorphins are peptides that form during the digestion of some of the gluten proteins. They can interfere with the central nervous system, which can cause depression .
- The gut microbiota. People with gluten sensitivity often experience changes in their gut microbiota. They may have higher levels of harmful bacteria and lower levels of beneficial bacteria. This can affect the central nervous system, which increases your risk for depression .
8. Iron Deficiency Anemia
People with gluten intolerance may experience inflammation in their gut and small intestine when they consume gluten. This inflammation can impair their ability to absorb nutrients from their diet, including iron .
Iron deficiency can cause low blood volume, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, pale skin, headaches, and weakness .
9. Unexplained Weight Loss
Suddenly losing weight is often a sign that something is wrong. While this is more often a sign of celiac disease, people with undiagnosed gluten intolerance may experience this as well. This could be a result of poor nutrient absorption, or a decreased appetite due to stomach upset and abdominal pain .
10. Abdominal Pain
Abdominal pain is the single most common sign of a gluten intolerance. Up to 83 percent of people with a gluten intolerance experience abdominal pain and discomfort after they consume gluten .
Know the Signs of Gluten Intolerance
While many of these symptoms can be the result of a variety of health conditions, they could be a sign that you have a gluten intolerance. In particular, if you are experiencing more than one of these symptoms, there is a good chance that you could have a gluten sensitivity.
If you think gluten may be the source of your symptoms, talk to your doctor about temporarily removing it from your diet. If you notice your symptoms improve after removing it, you may want to consider eliminating gluten from your diet permanently.