Gluten intolerance has become an increasingly common problem in the last decade. The signs of gluten intolerance are varied and can often manifest as something else. For this reason, gluten intolerance can be difficult to diagnose.
Knowing the signs of gluten intolerance can help you identify the cause of your discomfort. This way, you can take the right steps to reduce your symptoms and live comfortably.
Gluten intolerance and celiac disease
Gluten intolerance has been a somewhat controversial topic as it has become an increasingly common health problem. People experiencing symptoms believe that gluten is the source of their pain, while others argue that gluten sensitivity is not a legitimate complaint.
The main source of the argument is that many people use the terms «gluten sensitivity» and «gluten disease» interchangeably. However, the two conditions differ significantly:
Celiac disease: This is an autoimmune disease that affects only about 1% of the population. This is the most serious form of gluten sensitivity and can damage the digestive system. If left untreated, celiac disease can eventually lead to stomach cancer. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease (not «wheat allergy» ) that your doctor diagnoses with serologic and genetic testing.
Gluten sensitivity: You often hear people refer to gluten sensitivity as gluten insensitivity (NCGS) and sometimes gluten intolerance. This is an adverse reaction to gluten that really falls under the clinical picture of celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity is not associated with autoimmune disease and is much milder than celiac disease. Although many of the symptoms overlap, NCGS is not associated with complications of celiac disease .
Unlike celiac disease, there is no reliable way to diagnose gluten sensitivity. Therefore, experts estimate that between 0.5 and 13 percent of the population may have gluten insensitivity without celiac disease.
Is gluten sensitivity real?
Because the symptoms are so varied and difficult to accurately diagnose, there are many people who don’t believe that gluten sensitivity, other than celiac disease, is real. But what does the science say?
One study divided 59 participants suspected of having gluten sensitivity into two groups. Each group received either a gluten capsule or a rice starch placebo for one week. After that week, they changed places. Each time the participants received a gluten-containing capsule, they experienced an increase in symptoms, including abdominal pain, gas, headaches, fatigue, bloating, and mental confusion.
The researchers conducted another study in a similar format, this time with more than 100 participants without celiac disease. As in the first study, participants reported increased symptoms and decreased quality of life during the week of taking the gluten supplement.
Both studies prove that gluten sensitivity is real and affects people’s quality of life.
Signs of gluten intolerance
The problem with diagnosing gluten sensitivity is that symptoms vary widely and can be very nonspecific. This makes it difficult to distinguish the signs of gluten intolerance from other health problems and autoimmune diseases.
That said, knowing the signs of gluten intolerance can help you determine if gluten is bothering you. While many people are familiar with the digestive symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity, there are many other, less obvious signs that may prompt you to cut it out of your diet.
1. Skin problems
Gluten intolerance can cause a number of skin problems, including facial redness, acne, and rashes. If you have skin problems that seem to have no other logical explanation, you may want to take a look at your diet for clues.
Several different skin conditions have shown improvements on a gluten-free diet, including:
- Psoriasis: peeling and reddening of the skin.
- Alopecia areata: An autoimmune disease that causes hair loss without scarring.
- Chronic Urticaria: Recurrent, itchy, pink or red lesions with pale centers.
2. Headaches and brain fog
Migraine is 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 symptom of gluten intolerance. Many people describe it as forgetfulness, difficulty thinking, feeling «foggy» or mentally tired. This symptom affects up to 40% of people with gluten intolerance .
Feeling bloated is one of the most common complaints of people with gluten intolerance. Since this unpleasant sensation often occurs shortly after eating, this may be one of the easiest ways to detect gluten sensitivity.
One study found that up to 87% of people who thought they might have a gluten sensitivity experienced bloating.
4. Numbness and pain in the joints
People do not usually associate these symptoms with gluten intolerance. Instead, they usually attribute it to simple fatigue. However, people with gluten sensitivity may experience inflammation when consuming gluten. This can cause extensive pain in both the joints and muscles. It is not yet clear whether gluten causes joint pain in people without pre-existing conditions such as arthritis.
5. Constipation, diarrhea and gas
Frequent digestive complaints, such as diarrhea and constipation, are common problems with celiac disease. However, people with gluten sensitivity can also experience these symptoms. More than 50% of people with gluten sensitivity report frequent diarrhea and 25% of them experience constipation .
This is another sign of gluten intolerance that can go unnoticed. While feeling tired is very common and can be due to a variety of reasons, constant tiredness and lethargy are often a sign that something is wrong.
People with gluten intolerance may often notice that they feel tired or lethargic, especially after eating foods that contain gluten. In fact, between 60% and more than 80% of people with gluten intolerance usually experience these symptoms.
7. Depression and anxiety
There are several theories that 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 reduced levels of serotonin , which can lead to depression.
Gluten exorphins. Exorphins are peptides that are formed during the digestion of certain gluten proteins. They can affect the central nervous system, which can cause depression.
Gut microbiota. People with gluten sensitivity often experience changes in their gut microbiota . They may have higher levels of bad bacteria and lower levels of good bacteria. It can affect the central nervous system, which increases the risk of depression.
8. Iron deficiency anemia
People with gluten intolerance may experience inflammation in the intestines and small intestine when consuming gluten. This inflammation can affect your ability to absorb nutrients from your diet, including iron.
Iron deficiency can cause low blood volume, fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, pale skin, headaches, and weakness.
9. Unexplained weight loss
Sudden weight loss is often a sign that something is wrong. Although it is most often a sign of celiac disease, people with undiagnosed gluten intolerance can also experience it. It can be the result of poor absorption of nutrients or decreased appetite due to indigestion and abdominal pain.
10. Abdominal pain
Abdominal pain is the most common symptom of gluten intolerance. Up to 83% of people with gluten intolerance experience abdominal pain and discomfort after eating gluten.
Signs of gluten intolerance
While many of these symptoms can be the result of various health conditions, they may be a sign that you have a gluten intolerance. In particular, if you experience more than one of these symptoms, it is very likely that you have a sensitivity to gluten.
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 that your symptoms have improved after eliminating it, you may want to eliminate gluten from your diet for good.