I’m guessing you at least know someone who has gone gluten-free (GF)—whether it’s because they’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or they just feel healthier, think more clearly, and have better digestion without gluten on their plate. Maybe you’ve removed it from your own diet. Regardless, you can’t turn around in a grocery store or browse most restaurant menus without seeing the gluten-free label. Reuters has predicted that the revenue in the GF market will increase from $1.31 billion in 2011 to $1.68 billion this year alone (reference). Many of my readers have asked: Is going gluten-free a fad or can it really improve my well-being?
The short answer: It depends. But for the full scoop, read on to find out if saying buh-bye to biscuits and breadsticks could improve your health.
When gluten means trouble
Gluten, latin for “glue,” is the group of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye, triticale, malt, brewer’s yeast, wheat starch, and wheat derivatives like wheat berries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, and farina. There are a few main reasons people experience health issues when they eat gluten: Celiac disease, wheat allergies and gluten sensitivity. We’re focusing on gluten sensitivity today, but I still want you to be aware of the other main causes…
Celiac disease: This is an autoimmune disease that causes the destruction of villi in the small intestine after eating gluten. To test for celiac, a celiac blood panel is done while gluten is still in the diet to measure antibodies in the blood, including anti-gliadin (“anti-gluten”) IgA and IgG, and anti-tissue transglutaminase IgA (tTG-IgA). Even without symptoms, 98% of people with celiac will test positive for tTG-IgA in their blood while eating gluten. Then, the physician often recommends a biopsy of the small intestine to confirm the diagnosis. Those with celiac disease must strictly avoid all gluten to live symptom free.
Wheat allergy: This is an IgE-mediated disorder that causes reactions ranging from anaphylaxis (when your throat swells up and you can’t breathe—EpiPen needed!) to asthma after eating wheat. Although gluten is in all wheat products, wheat-free foods that contain gluten such as barley, rye, malt, and some oats are tolerated by individuals with wheat allergies.
Gluten sensitivity: Even if you don’t have celiac disease or a wheat allergy, you may still feel crummy after you eat gluten or wheat because you’re sensitive to the stuff. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) is a new kid on the block in the spectrum of gluten-related disorders and becoming more and more recognized by health practitioners (study). Folks all over the planet are finding relief from digestive issues and other ailments by simply avoiding gluten in their diets. Here’s how to start uncovering whether you fall into this category…
4 major signs you may be gluten sensitive
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity are very similar to those of celiac disease and wheat allergy, often including digestive issues, emotional concerns, and joint and muscle pain (study and study and study). Lots of folks with gluten sensitivity even produce some of the same anti-gluten IgG antibodies after consuming gluten that people with celiac disease do, but without destroying the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients.
So how can you begin to uncover whether gluten sensitivity is the culprit? The following symptoms occur shortly after eating gluten and improve or disappear within hours or days after gluten is withdrawn. Symptoms return again if gluten is reintroduced (study).
- Upper GI Issues: People with gluten sensitivity are often very burpy and bloated, get heartburn, and feel stomach pain or discomfort after eating. They may feel like food is stuck and isn’t digesting properly and may even have productive burps (aka regurgitation).
- Lower GI Issues: Gluten can cause diarrhea or constipation (or both!) in individuals who are gluten sensitive. These symptoms are very similar to those experienced by people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS), except that when gluten is eliminated, diarrhea and/or constipation disappear after a few days.
- Mental & Emotional Challenges: Gluten can be the source of brain fog, depression, anxiety, and general fatigue in people who are gluten sensitive. These issues are easily overlooked as signs of gluten sensitivity, especially if no digestive symptoms exist. But, once on a gluten-free diet, sensitive individuals feel more mentally clear, energized, and less anxious or moody.
- Aches & Pains: Feeling a little bit of pain everywhere? People who are gluten sensitive often experience headaches, joint and muscle pain, and even tingling or numbness in their hands and feet. These symptoms should diminish for sensitive guys and gals after going gluten-free for a few days.
How to determine if you’re sensitive to gluten
Do these signs sound familiar? If you’re regularly experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, try eliminating gluten from your diet for at least 3 weeks. You should start feeling better within the first week. Keep gluten out of your diet for a total of 3 weeks and then—if you want to test it—slowly integrate it back into your life and evaluate how you feel after 3 days. Check my FAQs here for more elimination diet specifics. If everything else in your diet has stayed the same, you should get a pretty clear feeling as to whether or not gluten is the trigger.