You probably know at least one person who’s gone gluten-free. They may have been diagnosed with celiac disease or self-reported gluten intolerance. Perhaps they just feel healthier, think more clearly, and have better digestion without gluten on their plate.
Maybe you’ve even removed it from your diet (or at least thought about it!). Regardless, you can’t turn around in a grocery store or browse most restaurant menus without seeing the gluten-free label.
Despite the incidence of celiac disease remaining flat, the number of people following a gluten-free diet has more than tripled since 2009 (reference). Among those eating gluten-free, 72% are classified as “PWAGs” (people without celiac who avoid gluten). By 2020, the gluten-free food market is projected to be worth $7.59 billion (reference).
Why are so many people going gluten-free if they don’t have celiac disease? Well, there are several ways gluten can wreak havoc on your health. In today’s blog, we’re gonna break down the differences between celiac disease, wheat allergy, gluten intolerance, and gluten sensitivity. Then we’ll cover 13 of the most common symptoms of gluten intolerance so you can start figuring out whether or not a gluten-free diet could be for you.
What is Gluten?
Gluten, Latin for “glue,” is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, triticale, malt, brewer’s yeast, wheat starch, and wheat derivatives like wheat berries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, and farina.
What is Gluten Intolerance (Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity)?
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS) is also commonly referred to as gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance. If you have a gluten intolerance, you’ll feel digestive discomfort after you eat gluten or wheat because you’re sensitive to the stuff. You’ll also exhibit some of the same symptoms. There are no medical tests for non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and the complications aren’t yet fully understood. The majority of people who avoid gluten fall into this category.
The major difference between someone who has a gluten sensitivity and someone who is gluten intolerant is in the severity of the symptoms. It may take someone who is gluten intolerant several weeks to feel relief from symptoms once they remove gluten from their diets, whereas people with gluten sensitivity may see improvements almost immediately. Because of this, people with gluten intolerance may want to be as diligent about avoiding gluten.
Both gluten sensitivity and intolerance aren’t well defined by the medical community. Eliminating gluten and documenting the results is the only “test” available. Researchers are currently trying to determine if gluten exposure for those with sensitivity or intolerance can lead to any long-term complications like damage to the intestinal tract or issues resulting from inflammation.
What Causes Gluten Intolerance?
No one knows what causes celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Research is still being done to determine a genetic component and look at environmental factors.
What’s the Difference between Gluten Intolerance and a Wheat Allergy?
A wheat allergy is a disorder in which the immune system treats the protein found in wheat as foreign invaders and releases antibodies to defend against them. Reactions range from anaphylaxis (when your throat swells up and you can’t breathe—EpiPen needed!) to asthma when wheat is consumed. Other common symptoms include.
- Chronic urticaria (skin rashes like hives)
- Digestive issues (stomach cramps, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea)
- Nasal congestion (more commonly associated with baker’s asthma)
Docs usually use skin prick tests to diagnose wheat allergies, which involve pricking wheat extracts into the skin’s surface (usually on the forearm) and observing the reaction. Blood tests looking for wheat-specific antibodies are also an option.
Although gluten is in all wheat products, people with wheat allergies can consume wheat-free foods that contain gluten (such as barley, rye, malt, and some oats). Like celiac disease, wheat allergy is a serious condition that requires strict avoidance of wheat-containing foods.
How is Gluten Intolerance Diagnosed?
If you think you or your child have undiagnosed celiac disease, you can schedule an appointment with a specialist. Doctors test for celiac disease by doing a blood panel that checks for celiac antibodies the body produces when it detects gluten.
That’s why it’s important for people being tested for celiac disease to continue consuming gluten during the testing period. When the blood panel finds celiac antibodies, 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. Celiac is not technically a food allergy, but it’s often referred to as such to emphasize how important it is for celiac disease patients to steer clear of gluten.
However, if you are not diagnosed with Celiac Disease, there is no diagnostic test to determine if you have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity at this time.
How is a Gluten Intolerance Different from Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disease and the most severe form of gluten intolerance. People who have it have adverse reactions when they consume gluten. Their bodies create antibodies that destroy villi, which are finger-like projections in the small intestine that assist with nutrient absorption, damaging the digestive tract.
People with celiac disease experience inflammation after eating gluten, which can lead to abdominal pain and the significant digestive discomfort commonly associated with someone who is gluten intolerant. They also struggle with nutritional deficiencies.
Celiac disease is often genetic and can run in families. If you or a loved one has symptoms—or experiences a risk factor such as diabetes—get tested.
The 13 Signs of Gluten Intolerance
So if you don’t have celiac disease and you’re not allergic to wheat but you still feel crappy after eating, how can you tell whether or not gluten is the culprit? Because there are no tests for gluten sensitivity or intolerance, it’s not always easy!
But if you pay close attention to how you feel when you eat foods that contain gluten vs. foods that don’t, you may notice a pattern.
Now that we know what gluten is, and the difference between gluten intolerance and celiac disease, let’s dive into what to look for if you think you have a gluten intolerance. Start by watching out for these common signs of gluten intolerance:
#1: Upset Stomach Bloating, Heartburn, and “Celiac Burping”
People with gluten intolerance or 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) soon after eating.
#2: Diarrhea, Constipation, and Abdominal Pain
Folks who are sensitive to gluten might experience digestive symptoms such as frequent diarrhea or constipation (or both!) after consuming it. These symptoms are very similar to those experienced by people with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS).
People who have especially sensitive digestive systems often experience increased intestinal permeability when they eat gluten. This means that harmful bacteria and toxins pass through the intestinal lining into the rest of the body (you may have heard this referred to as leaky gut syndrome).
People with leaky gut often eliminate gluten to help heal the lining of their intestinal tract (study). Healing a leaky gut also often involves avoiding yeast, dairy, sugar and alcohol, managing stress, and eating a nutrient-dense diet.
#3: Arm and Leg Numbness
Arm and leg numbness—referred to in the medical field as neuropathy—can be a surprising symptom of gluten intolerance. This is also commonly seen in people who are diabetic or have B12 deficiencies.
#4: Iron-deficiency Anemia
Did you know that iron deficiency anemia is the most common nutrient deficiency? Approximately 10 million people in the United States are deficient in iron. People who have an iron deficiency have symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, and overall weakness.
#5: Skin Reactions
Gluten intolerant individuals can also struggle with skin conditions, such as eczema, psoriasis, and atopic dermatitis. Dermatitis herpetiformis is a skin condition characterized by blistering and most commonly associated with celiac disease.
Another common symptom of gluten-sensitive individuals is fatigue, a feeling of persistent tiredness that impacts daily functioning. However, this can be related to numerous other autoimmune diseases as well.
Do you get headaches or migraines frequently without a clear cause? Migraines are yet another symptom that can overlap with other disorders.
#8: Autoimmune Disorders
Unfortunately, research has found that having one autoimmune disorder can make you prone to other autoimmune diseases. People with celiac disease are also commonly diagnosed with autoimmune liver diseases, autoimmune thyroid disease, inflammatory bowel disease, and even type I diabetes. Conversely, autoimmune thyroid disorders make celiac disease more likely to occur.
#9: Stunted Growth in Kids
One of the major health concerns is seen in children who have a gluten allergy. Celiac disease leads to poor nutrient absorption which can unintentional weight loss and a failure to thrive. If you notice any symptoms of gluten intolerance in a child, seek professional medical help immediately!
#10: Weight Loss
If you experience unintended weight loss, it can be a sign of poor nutrient absorption. If it’s accompanied by other digestive issues, consider getting tested for a gluten allergy.
#11: Brain fog/Mental fatigue
Brain fog is characterized by an inability to focus, sluggish thinking, forgetfulness, and confusion, and can also include memory issues.
#12: Emotional and Depressive Disorders (Depression and Anxiety)
How gluten intolerance can worsen anxiety and depression is related to the gut microbiome. Research has shown that gluten intolerance can destroy beneficial bacteria in the gut and wreak havoc on the digestive system, in turn impacting your mood.
#13: Joint and muscle pain
Feeling a little bit of pain everywhere? People who are gluten sensitive often experience widespread pain. These symptoms should diminish for sensitive guys and gals after going gluten-free for a few days.
Do these ring a bell: Digestive issues, mental fogginess or achiness? Going #glutenfree could help.‘
How to Treat a Gluten Intolerance
If you’re regularly experiencing any of the widespread symptoms listed above—and have not been diagnosed with celiac disease—try eliminating gluten from your diet for at least 3 weeks. You should start feeling better within the first week.
Exclude gluten from your diet for at least 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. 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.
One thing to keep in mind: New research indicates that common upper and lower GI gluten sensitivity symptoms could also be connected to a group of poorly digested carbohydrates called FODMAPs (fermentable oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols) such as fruits, certain veggies, wheat, rye, barley, beans, lentils and some nuts (study).
If giving up gluten doesn’t help improve your digestive symptoms, you may want to consider working with an integrative nutritionist to eliminate FODMAPs temporarily to help your system heal.
Ways to Reduce Gluten in Your Diet
If you do decide to try a gluten-free diet—don’t skimp on whole grains—but do avoid eating foods containing gluten. Rely on gluten-free whole grains like millet, quinoa, amaranth, buckwheat, and teff.
Also, avoid the overly processed gluten-free snack foods and desserts as they’re often packed with added sugars, preservatives, and other inflammatory ingredients. Check out this blog post to learn more about the pros and cons of a gluten-free diet, and tips for doing it the healthy way.
Keep in mind that this is about finding a diet that works for you, not anyone else! As always, I encourage you to be your own health detective. Do your research, and work with integrative docs and practitioners who take a holistic approach to your well-being. If some light bulbs went off while reading this blog, I hope you’ll dig deeper and seek out guidance and testing, if needed. Your exploration will bring you greater well-being.
Your turn: Have you overcome health challenges with gluten or do you have questions I could cover in another blog? Share your experiences, questions, and resources in the comments so that we can swap tips and insights!
Peace & exploration,
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For about 15 years, I experienced frequent migraines – basically daily. I also had brain fog and even though am generally very upbeat and energetic, I desperately needed to nap in the afternoon. Back in 2000, a new doctor suggested that I might be sensitive to gluten. I had never heard of gluten. I eliminated it and within days felt reborn. All I had to do was go back on gluten and my headaches and afternoon fatigue would resume. Since then I have remained gluten free and have never looked back. I have ZERO migraines and couldn’t nap if you paid me – am just not tired anymore. It has truly been the most life changing thing that has ever happened to me. Am so grateful to my primary care physician. When I hear or read people claiming or assuming it’s a fad it makes me sad. I think there are so many people walking around not feeling great simply be of the gluten they are eating. Deleterious effects of gluten are REAL. Not imagined. Not a fad.
Thank you for sharing your experiences! So happy to hear you found what’s right for your health. xo, kc
Thanks for the insight and tips and advice. I sometimes feel I would do better if I eliminated gluten. Thing is some days it weighs me down and I feel sluggish and unhappy and my stomach produces acid which really hurts. This happens usually after I eat pizza. I can eat pasta occasionally and that is ok. As long as the sauce is simple like some olive oil and fresh herbs. Some days I think I must be allergic to yeast rather than wheat or gluten itself. However I do suffer regularly from foggy visions ( brain fog) and yes my stomach often hurts after I eat unless it is salad or some rice. I wish to do a proper food allergy test where they take blood sample. In the meantime I keep telling myself I don’t need a test I can do this alone. Eliminate foods and detect how I feel after. I read a book that said it takes a good 5 weeks for the body to stop craving wheat after you eliminate it. I admire MadameMap who says she did and has never felt better. Her words inspire me. I just need to tell myself it is only hard in the beginning
Eliminating gluten was definitely hard, harder than any big dietary or lifestyle change I’ve ever made, and I’ve made several 😉 It’s been about six years, and it’s easy now, even now that I only eat out of my own kitchen (in order to avoid cross-contamination)! I’ve noticed this pattern for me whenever I make a big change: it gets easier around 6-8 weeks, then easier yet around 6 months, at about a year, the lifestyle changes are fully integrated and feel normal, and around about 2 years I completely stop missing “pleasures” I gave up. I’m sure everyone has their own varying patterns, and keeping my timeline in mind helps me be mindful of where I am in a transition process and have insight into how support myself better!
Your story sure hits home…my son had a migraine almost every day for a year. Within 10 days of going gluten free, his migraines were gone. Amazing!
I have had lots of migraines, head aches, lethargy, muscle & joint pains, and IBS. I didn’t take gluten intolerance seriously until I prayed about, researched it and realised that I must be very sensitive to gluten. As of this day, I gotten gluten free sourdough bread, and happily given up anything gluten. I think I shall feel better very soon. So a big thank you to you all. Madame Map, you’ve really inspired me. Cheers and blessings mates
Thank you for clarifying the gluten issue. I stopped eating ALL gluten 1 year ago because I have hasihmoto’s I learned that even a little gluten will trigger an autoimmune response in my body which is detrimental to my thyroid. I used to think I could have a little bread with olive oil once in a while. Since I stopped eating gluten completely my digestion has improved and I have less hair loss. I think anyone with an autoimmune condition would benefit from being gluten free. It is my intention to heal my digestive system and my thyroid to once again be able to eat gluten occasionally, but it is a process that may take some time. Lots of Love Ingrid
Same thing here. I have hashimoto’s too!
Thank you for a very simple, informative post about gluten. I hope some who I know will read it and think about it…even if it changes nothing for them, it may help them realize every BODY is different, and nobody should eat what others choose, but decide for themselves
Right on, Suzy! Glad this resonated with you. xo, kc
Kris! Love the article but curious if you have read The Grain Brain yet. I’m convinced that gluten is bad for everybody after reading it. A must-read. Get the word out, please!!!
Once again, a very informative, well written article/blog. Thank you. I am at the beginning of writing a gluten free book based upon my families experience on a gluten free diet (inc. a son and father being celiacs) and would also like to include some articles from experts such as yourself. Would you be willing to be interviewed over the phone or your specific articles referred to in my book? Thank you for your consideration. Kind regards. Terry
I was having joint pain on my knees and couldn’t walk upstairs to my bedroom. I had another article on the subject and decided to try being gluten free. I have been gluten free for over 3 years now and loving it. No more pain and bloating. More energy, as well.
Thrilled to hear that you’re feeling great, Shirley. xo, kc
Thanks for giving your perspective on such a popular issue. I agree with you! So many people are going gluten free that don’t have celiac disease and they are getting constipated! As a naturopath I teach people how to get their body systems back into balance so that eating gluten doesn’t actually bother them anymore! If they have celiac disease then it makes sense not to eat gluten. But if there are just sensitivities to it then a lot of the time it is just a struggling digestive system that needs a little TLC!
I have had gluten sensitivity for over 3-4 years now and have avoid gluten for 3-4 years. I feel great but feel that I need to introduce gluten albiet in small amounts in my diet as it causes constipation. I have also started having gastric trouble with other foods like corn, eggs etc. I think i need some guidance from a naturopath like yourself. Could you please give me your contact number?
Thanks so much for this! I have to say as an allergy /inflammation specialist – I see gluten allergy and sensitivity every day! I would go as far as saying everyone should *try* off of gluten for about 2-4 weeks. Sometimes very subtle symptoms that you may consider a normal thing can go away after stopping gluten. I know I have had this experience. Many people are able to add it back and then lower their overall intake.
Thanks again for this awesome info!
It’s wonderful hearing your insights, Amy! Thanks so much for sharing what you’ve been seeing at your practice. xo, kc
Hi Kris, thanks so much for your wonderful work! My daughter seems to have a gluten sensitivity and I gave her Rudi’s GF potato bread this morning with Earth Balance Butter and nutritional yeast on top. She had a complete emotional turn around after the toast and where things had been going so well for the last couple weeks of GF eating they deteriorated quickly. I have noticed that if she eats gluten the emotional affects are pretty immediate but I had no idea that brewer’s yeast had gluten?!? Is nutritional yeast the same as brewer’s yeast? She loves it but it may be one more thing we have to say goodbye to.
I checked in with Jen Reilly, RD on this one. She confirmed that brewer’s yeast definitely contains gluten. Jen also mentioned that nutritional yeast is gluten-free, but some experts speculate that there can be a cross-reaction in the body when consuming any kind of yeast, causing the body to react as if it has consumed gluten. So, I would recommend just keeping an eye on any potential reactions. Hope that helps! xo, kc
Thanks so much for checking Kris! That’s actually great news that I just need to watch it instead of cut it out completely. We also make a vegan Mac and cheese with nutritional yeast and it would be hard to give up. My daughter will be very happy:-)
I would love the vegan mac and cheese recipe 🙂
Corn gluten is often used to replace wheat gluten in foods, and for many it’s the gf diet foods that set off new reactions increasing.
Just eliminated gluten from my diet 3 weeks ago and feeling much better. Less bloating, less pain in my belly and less wind (wich can be sooooooo anoying and embarressing), and in 1 week I will try some gluten again to see if this is the actual cullprit.
Happy to see you being your own health detective! xo, kc
Kris! This is perfect! I love that you mention how we all need to be our very own detectives and you know what!? Just imagine how much more exciting and thrilling you’ve made that detective work for so many! Hat’s off to you, gorgeous lady! When it comes to gluten/bread I much rather enjoy some good real local sourdough bread every now and then than shovel down industrially made GF loaves with god-knows-what flours, additives, stabilizers, refined sugar, scary uncool yeast and not the best salt, five times a day. High vibes are the best vibes in my (bread) book! Thank you for being so dedicated to shining light on things that matter so greatly <3 Lotsa love from Sweden
Thank YOU, Elenore! xo, kc
I listened to a woman discuss her journey with celiac and her symptoms. She took repeatted celiac tests before being properly diagnosed. She was finally advised to avoid gluten for a month, then 1-2 weeks prior to celiac test, eat gluten daily. The test from the doctor was then able to pick up and diagnose her correctly. The test itself may be giving false negatives. She is sensitive to gluten in soya sauce, as well as wheat/grain products, surprizing where gluten turns up.
Thank you Kris for this post! My boyfriend is a celiac, so we keep a gf kitchen, but I do eat gluten out of the house + have never noticed any negative effects gluten has on me.
What’s crazy to me is that we have many friends + people in our community who don’t “believe” in celiac’s disease or other gluten sensitivities. It makes it really hard, because if friends invite us to dinner, we have to explain to them even the issue of cross contamination, and no you can’t just take the croutons off the salad, etc. Having any type of food allergy, while not so difficult to maintain in our own kitchen, can be really alienating.
I think it’s because going gf has become such a fad that when people have to do it for an illness, it’s not taken seriously + people think they are doing it to be annoying or being paranoid about even a crumb.
Thank you for shedding light on this issue + hopefully paving the way for change!
Thanks for sharing your experiences, Veronica! 🙂
Great clarity and encouragement, Kris!
As a wellness coach that takes women on five day kickstart retreats where we eliminate sugar and gluten I see amazing results in everyone—better sleep, decreased hair loss, weight loss, and more energy. Many of the women remain off gluten after seeing what five days can do for them. The first couple days can bring on detox symptoms and confuse people, but by day three I see them making great leaps in health and energy. I got over fibromyalgia, depression and chronic fatigue 7 years ago on a gluten free diet. I understand it is not just the gluten, but the genetic modification of wheat and the total amounts of carbohydrates that reduce to sugar that are playing havoc with so many of us. Health is a detective journey!
Thank you for everything. I know every one is telling you this all the time, but it’s true: you are such an inspiration…I thank you with all my heart.
My question is: I have eczema and I am worse since I got pregnant and had my wonderful baby boy, almost 2 years now. What I would like to ask you is if you know if there are any kind of foods related with eczema and in other hand, if there are foods that can improve my condition.
Thank you so much. Keep your beautiful smile shining through the world.
hi Sofia both my daughters and I are wheat sensitive, picked up by their paediatrician after many difficulties with feeding. what also transpired was that we also had a sensitivity to dairy products which led to the following – digestive problems ( gas stomach pains diarrhoea etc), excema, asthma. one followed the other if symptoms ignored, I had all three and no idea why. After eliminating dairy all three disappeared, after a period of many months I was able to have small amounts. This remains the same after 14 years. Hope this helps. Beverleyx
Thank you for explaining that not eating gluten is more than just a fad. As someone who went through years of issues and feeling sick it’s validating to know that the truth about gluten and the range of issues it causes is real. I spent two years sick as a dog before a dermatologist of all people suggested gluten sensitivity. I was tested for everything under the sun and blood tests showed it wasn’t celiac, but my symptoms sure mimicked the disease. Most doctors shrugged their shoulders and didn’t try to help. I had a rash, digestive issues, and pretty much everything else mentioned above. It’s not easy going gluten free because most people don’t understand what that means and often think it’s a fad diet so they give you the side eye when you tell them you are gluten free. Also it’s so easy to get glutened by those who don’t take care, but I feel so much better and know this is what I need to do to be healthy. If you want to learn more I recommend the National Association for Celiac Disease http://www.celiaccentral.org/. Gluten sensitivity is real and is finally getting recognized, fight for your health and find answers to get yourself well even it you have to got to several doctors or do some research on your own. P.S. It’s best to get tested for Celiac disease before you stop eating gluten, otherwise the test can be false negative once gluten is out of your system. Get tested first if you think this is an issue for you. Be Well!
Wishing you the very best on your wellness path, Antoinette. Knowledge is power & I’m sure others will benefit from you sharing your experiences! xo, kc
Thanks Kris, another excellent article as usual. I have also read that gluten food foods tend to be higher calories (correct me if I have bad information) so another reason not to choose gluten food unless you really need too!
Thanks so much for this info! I’m a breast cancer survivor, and after chemo and radiation 2 years ago, found that I was left with several side effects, including peripheral neuropathy in my hands and feet, and reflux. I’ve been experimenting with going gluten-free for the past few months, and have found that I feel so much better when I stick to it. The neuropathy is mostly gone, my digestion is better, and I just generally feel better. I’m more mindful about what I eat, and have found some wonderful gluten free substitutes to add to my diet. I am also focusing much more on “real” food like fruits and veggies. I was tested and told that I have a gluten sensitivity, and I do find that I can handle a little bit in my diet, so when I really miss something I set aside one meal to cheat. As time has gone on, I’ve realized that I feel so much better being gluten free that cheating is no longer a pleasure!
One question for you – I was wondering why this is such a big focus now, while it wasn’t 30 years ago. Do you think there is a connection between the GMO foods that are being pushed on us now? I read somewhere that almost all of the wheat and corn that we eat is genetically modified.
Love to you!!!
So, if I’m consuming wheat grass….is this considered gluten? Or is it only when cooked?
Hiya Patty! Wheat grass is gluten-free as long as it is pure grass without any seeds. xo, kc
I have symptoms of celiac. I feel pretty bad after eating anything, even salads!. Because of this, I started a gluten- free diet by now already 2 weeks and I do not feel any difference, still symptomatic.
Well, 2 days ago I decided to eat Pancakes for break fast with maple syrup and for my surprised I felt much better. the fogginess in my head disappeared. Today I went back to my green juice for breakfast and feel horrible again. I really do not know what is going on?