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Gluten intolerance is rising, especially in developed countries like the United States. More and more people say that bread, pasta, cereals, and other gluten-containing grains are problematic for their digestive function. But sometimes, gluten sensitivity extends beyond the gut and can worsen other health conditions like Hashimoto's disease.
Ahead, we explore common and not-so-common gluten sensitivity symptoms and discuss why you may be experiencing these reactions.
Gluten sensitivity (or intolerance) is the term most people use to describe a state in which they cannot tolerate foods or ingestible products that contain gluten. Gluten is a protein found in rye, barley, and wheat. Gluten sensitivity symptoms are similar to celiac disease symptoms, but sensitivity does not lead to intestinal damage.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition where gluten ingestion damages the mucosal lining of the small intestine. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the immune system mounts an attack that harms the villi (small finger-like projections) that line the small intestine. One of the biggest problems with celiac disease is that people cannot absorb nutrients once the villi are damaged. Celiac disease has a strong genetic component, whereas your family history may not largely determine your risk for gluten sensitivity.
Gluten sensitivity is neither an allergy to gluten or wheat nor an autoimmune condition. But left unmanaged, it can cause various health issues and may exacerbate other conditions. Most notably, it can aggravate autoimmune disorders like Hashimoto's thyroiditis.
People with gluten sensitivity can experience a slew of symptoms. And while it is less severe than celiac disease, its symptoms often extend to areas outside the gastrointestinal tract. In contrast, celiac symptoms usually stay in the gut until nutritional deficiencies emerge.
Of course, the first sign that gluten may be problematic for you is gastrointestinal (GI) upset. Many of the symptoms are similar to those in irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which may be associated with gluten sensitivity.
Gastrointestinal symptoms you may experience include:
- Abdominal pain
Typically, people start to connect the dots to gluten when they have any of the above GI symptoms. But other extraintestinal symptoms may also be related to gluten sensitivity—they may not seem as apparent as gastrointestinal problems.
Frequent headaches or migraines may be related to gluten ingestion. There is little research on why, but one study found that 56% of people with gluten sensitivity experienced chronic headaches.
Also shared in people with gluten sensitivity is brain fog, a disconcerting cognitive problem that affects people for various reasons. People with brain fog describe their thoughts as muddled or unclear, have trouble concentrating, struggle to remember certain things, and feel generally disoriented. Brain fog is a common side effect that can impact people in various circumstances, including acutely or chronically ill people, postpartum mothers, women in perimenopause, and people who have experienced severe emotional distress.
Anxiety and depression
Some evidence suggests that gluten may affect the brain. And in follow-up studies in people who have undergone gluten challenges, some people exhibit an increase in depression. It is unclear why some people experience anxiety, but part of this symptom may stem from the impending worry over GI issues.
Fatigue and feeling unwell
Perhaps the most common symptom people experience outside of GI issues is a general feeling of being unwell. In addition, people often experience fatigue that is unresolved with rest and sleep, contributing to feeling poorly overall.
Joint and muscle pain
Celiac disease and rheumatoid arthritis have long been associated, but more recently, evidence shows that gluten sensitivity may contribute to joint inflammation and pain, and myopathy.
Rashes and eczema are common in people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity. For example, people with celiac disease often have dermatitis herpetiformis, an itchy, red rash that goes away once removing gluten from the diet. Not everyone with eczema or other skin conditions will have difficulties with gluten, but if you are struggling with your skin, it may help to eliminate gluten to see if that helps.
Other potential gluten sensitivity symptoms include:
- Weight loss
- Numbness and tingling in the extremities
There is no test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Instead, this condition is usually diagnosed based on symptoms and a food journal. A healthcare provider often recommends you eliminate gluten temporarily to see if your symptoms clear up. If they do improve, it is likely that you are sensitive to gluten and should avoid it to feel your best.
Some people may request to have testing for celiac. Because it is so prevalent in families, people who have family members with celiac disease and symptoms associated with gluten ingestion should have this test. Your doctor will likely order a tTG-IgA test for tissue transglutaminase IgA antibodies.
If a tTG-IgA test is positive, a doctor may order an upper endoscopy test, where a tiny camera goes down the esophagus, and a sample is taken from the small intestine for evaluation.
Treatment for non-celiac gluten sensitivity involves avoiding foods and medications that contain gluten. If you have a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, your symptoms should improve if you avoid ingesting gluten.
If you have gluten sensitivity and accidentally eat a food or take a medication that has gluten, some natural remedies may also be helpful.
Note: The remedies listed below do not have sufficient clinical research data to determine that they effectively alleviate symptoms of gluten sensitivity. Still, they are considered relatively safe and low risk. If you are on medication and choose to add herbs or supplements to your treatment, we recommend you consult with your doctor to adjust your dosage, if needed.
Water, water, water
Drinking water helps hydrate, improve digestion, and flush the system.
Activated charcoal absorbs toxins within the gastrointestinal tract to prevent the systemic absorption of that toxin. Activated charcoal is most effective when taken within one hour of ingesting gluten.
Herbal infusions like peppermint, chamomile, or ginger tea help reduce stomach upset and support hydration. Researchers suggest that the benefits of tea may have to do with the high content of polyphenols which have antioxidant, antiviral, and anti-inflammatory properties.
Omega-3 fatty acid supplements
Omega-3 fatty acids are clinically proven to help decrease inflammation, which can manifest as GI issues, acne, joint pain, headaches, fatigue, etc.
L-glutamine supplements are amino acids. Research suggests that L-glutamine amino acids are essential in helping to repair and protect the stomach lining.
Collagen contains anti-inflammatory amino acids that protect and repair the digestive tract and stomach lining.
Working with a thyroid nutritionist or using a mobile app like Paloma Health can help you figure out what foods are problematic for you and help ensure you are getting all of the nutrients you need to thrive.