Gluten Intolerance: 13 Symptoms to Watch Out For


Hiya Gorgeous,

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.

#6: Fatigue

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.

#7: Migraines

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,

Kris Carr

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