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Did you know that while only 1 in 133 people in America have celiac disease, according to the Beyond Celiac, as many as 18 million Americans may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)?
It’s no surprise to learn that so many people are suffering from a gluten sensitivity, as studies have shown that gluten causes inflammation in ALL who eat it.
In case you’re a doubter, I’m here to tell you that yes, gluten sensitivity is REAL. And just because you don’t have celiac disease, it doesn’t mean this simple protein found in wheat, rye and barley is not at the root cause of your chronic inflammation and pain. (Before going gluten-free, please get tested for celiac disease, which you can do at your doctor’s office or via the imaware at-home celiac disease test.)
Gluten sensitivity is hard to diagnose, difficult to understand, and can make someone feel like a social piraya. Regardless, gluten sensitivity is a real condition with real consequences if ignored. You can learn more about gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance (these terms are used interchangeably) in this post, How Do I Know If I Have a Gluten Intolerance?
Remember, a gluten sensitivity or intolerance MUST be properly managed through a strict gluten-free diet if you want to vastly improve your health. No cheating.
Below, I’ve documented 10 symptoms that may signal you have a gluten sensitivity to help you better understand if gluten is the source of your chronic condition. If you suspect a gluten sensitivity, talk with an educated physician or healthcare professional about getting a proper diagnosis. (Please do not go gluten-free before getting tested. I discuss why in this article.)
Getting Tested for a Gluten Sensitivity
A gluten sensitivity test is different from a celiac disease test. A celiac test is looking for antibodies to gluten (learn more about testing for celiac disease). Ironically, you can test for celiac disease with an at-home finger prick test, but no such test exists for testing for a gluten sensitivity.
Testing for gluten sensitivity can be done by a simple blood test ordered by your doctor. I recommend getting tests ordered from Cyrex Labs, which specializes in testing specifically for gluten sensitivities (see Array 3x and 4 tests). These blood tests look at 12 different peptides of gluten (not just gliadin, which is what celiac disease tests look for) to help decode if the immune system is reacting to gluten peptides.
There are, however, at-home food sensitivity tests available that test for antibodies made in response to consuming 100+ foods. Be careful when relying on these tests. (Read my article, The Truth About Food Sensitivity Tests and My Everlywell Food Sensitivity Test Results). These tests often come back with a laundry list of foods you are “sensitive” to, and when this happens, it may actually be signaling that you have a leaky gut. In other words, your body is making antibodies to everything you’re eating! Once your gut is healed, however, a food sensitivity test may help you see which one or two foods are still potential irritants for you.
Please note… BEFORE going gluten-free, read my article, Don’t Go Gluten-Free Until You Read This, where I discuss the importance of getting tested for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity before eliminating gluten. You must have gluten in your system in order for a celiac disease or gluten sensitivity test to be accurate.
10 Gluten Sensitivity Symptoms
Most people think of celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity as an illness of the digestive system, but I’m here to tell you that gluten disorders rear their ugly heads in many ways beyond the gut.
I have met hundreds of people with one of more of the following celiac disease and/or gluten sensitivity symptoms. As always, please discuss any health concerns with your doctor as gluten may – or may not – be the root cause of your condition.
(1) Skin Conditions
There are many skin conditions related to an abnormal immune system response to gluten.
One condition, Keratosis Pilaris, also called chicken skin, is a skin condition where raised, hard bumps appear on the skin. Research indicates that those with keratosis pilaris also have a fatty acid and vitamin A deficiency. This may be due to impaired absorption of nutrients due to intestinal damage from gluten.
Another condition, Dermatitis Herpetiformis (DH), is a chronic inflammatory disease of the skin that appears in the form of lesions that burn and itch (DH is sometimes called celiac rash). DH is an autoimmune disease and blisters typically appear on the elbows, knees, buttocks, back and/or scalp. The bumps are usually symmetrical, meaning skin blisters will appear on both elbows.
Only about 20% of people with DH have intestinal symptoms commonly associated with celiac disease, however, they must follow a strict gluten-free diet like those with celiac disease. Those suffering from DH must follow a strict gluten-free diet in order to eliminate the need for medicines and prevent later complications.
Eczema and psoriasis are other inflammatory skin conditions that have been linked to gluten. In one study of 17 patients with non-celiac gluten sensitivities that had skin conditions, all patients in the study got “much better” after adopting a gluten-free diet.
Acne and dry skin also have been linked to poor nutrient absorption. Poor absorption of vitamins and minerals can be caused by gluten damaging the small intestine responsible for absorption of nutrients.
(2) Digestive Symptoms
Digestive symptoms are most commonly associated with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity symptoms. Gas, severe bloating, diarrhea and constipation often go away or lessen in severity with the adoption of a gluten-free diet.
Such symptoms often result from undigested gluten proteins entering the small intestine, creating holes the intestinal walls, and then “leaking” into the bloodstream. Patients with celiac disease have damaged small intestines and flattened villi, the finger-like follicles surrounding the small intestine that are responsible for nutrient absorption. The only remedy for celiac disease is a lifelong gluten-free diet.
Furthermore, studies suggest that some IBS sufferers find their digestive symptoms improve with a gluten-free diet.
(3) Mental Disorders
People with gluten sensitivities often experience neurological symptoms like mood swings, depression, anxiety and ADHD. A gluten-free diet has been shown to help combat many of the symptoms associated with these diagnoses, albeit a lot of the research is still in the works.
One well-documented case of psychiatric behaviors improving with a gluten-free diet is of an anonymous patient admitted to a psychiatric ward due to suicidal and agitated behaviors. The patient was unresponsive to antidepressants and other medications and therapies. An extensive diagnostic study showed the patient had celiac disease. The patient improved significantly once a gluten-free diet was started.
A lot of patients suffering with ADHD are often nutrient deficient (particularly in fatty acids and Vitamin A) and once those deficiencies are addressed, the patients significantly improve according to Dr. Mark Hyman in his book, The UltraMind Solution. Many gluten sensitive individuals are unable to absorb nutrients and become deficient in essential vitamins and minerals due to their damaged intestines.
(Read Jennifer’s Way by Jennifer Esposito. She suffered from “mental disorders” that stemmed from undiagnosed celiac disease. Her story is very inspiring!)
(4) Mouth and Dental Issues
Many patients with celiac disease and gluten sensitivities often find their disease showing up in oral manifestations. This is often due to nutrient deficiencies and poor vitamin absorption due to damaged intestines.
People with gluten sensitivities and celiac disease often experience more cavities, canker sores, mouth ulcers, broken teeth and tooth decay. One study found that enamel defects are common in adults with celiac disease and that observation of these effects is another way to potentially diagnose celiac disease. Another study found that a pattern of enamel defects and oral aphthae (small ulcers appearing in the mouth or tongue) are common findings in celiac disease, thus making the dentist an integral part of the celiac disease diagnostic team.
Geographic tongue is one possible oral manifestation of the body’s negative response to gluten. Geographic tongue is a benign inflammatory condition where ulcer or sore patches appear on your tongue. One study showed an increased prevalence of celiac disease in patients with geographic tongue.
While studies are inconsistent, incomplete or non-conclusive about whether or not gluten sensitivity is related to fertility issues, there is evidence suggesting that celiac disease is known to cause adverse reproductive consequences, including infertility and recurrent pregnancy loss. One study suggested that celiac disease is related to infertility in 4% to 8% of patients.
Reproductive problems such as infertility and irregular menstrual cycles are often connected to gluten intolerance. Experts say that inflammation caused by gluten puts stress on the adrenal glands, which then malfunction and upset the balance of the endocrine system. Another study in New York of patients with unexplained infertility found that 6% of the patients had confirmed cases of previously undiagnosed celiac disease.
Another study found the incidence of miscarriage and premature birth higher in those with celiac disease than the general population. Some experts say this may be due to complications related to nutritional deficiencies prevalent in those with undiagnosed celiac disease.
Elisabeth Hasselbeck talks about her struggle with infertility openly in her book, The G Free Diet. When she realized she had celiac disease, and once she began a gluten-free diet, she was finally able to conceive a baby. Nearly 15% of the 2,000 women who took part in the Canadian Celiac Health Survey said they had difficulty conceiving, and nearly one-third of the participants had miscarriages.
One doctor warns that celiac disease shouldn’t only be diagnosed when a patient complains of digestive issues because, in one quarter of patients, celiac disease presents itself through poor absorption and vitamin deficiencies not digestive issues. When someone goes on a gluten-free diet, their small intestine heals, they are able to absorb nutrients, and they become overall healthier and ready to conceive.
(6) Bone Density Issues
Gluten sensitivity symptoms can manifest in the form of bone problems. Osteoporosis, recurrent bone fractures in the limbs, joint pain, arthritis and swollen joints are often the sign of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.
If you have bone density issues ranging from osteopenia (mild) to osteoporosis (severe), you may have trouble absorbing nutrients and suffer from a gluten-related disorder. Talk to your doctor about getting tested for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity.
(7) Autoimmune Disease
Dr. Mark Hyman says that gluten sensitivity might actually be an autoimmune disease that creates inflammation throughout the body and can be the single cause of so many different diseases, including other autoimmune diseases and chronic illnesses.
In an article published in Nutrition & Healing, Dr. Jonathan Wright suggests that anyone suffering from an incurable autoimmune disease or other undiagnosed health problems should be tested for gluten sensitivity. He says that 90% of individuals with an autoimmune disorder tests positive for a gluten sensitivity.
Here are some of the autoimmune diseases a gluten-free diet has been shown to help, to name a few:
- Addison’s disease
- Crohn’s disease
- Graves’ disease
- Hashimoto’s thyroiditis
- Multiple Sclerosis
- Rheumatoid arthritis
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Ulcerative colitis
Dr. Terry Wahls is a medical doctor who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. When Western medicine failed to find her satisfactory treatment options, she turned to functional medicine where she learned that through supplements and diet (including avoiding gluten), she could slow her disease from progressing and perhaps even reverse it. The results were miraculous. She went from using a tilt-recline wheelchair and being nearly bedridden to walking again within a year and completing an 18-mile bicycle tour. She wrote a book about her journey to reverse MS through diet called The Wahls Protocol.
Dr. O’Bryan says in his book, The Autoimmune Fix, if you have a sensitivity to gluten, it can manifest as inflammation in ANY tissue of the body. He adds that there isn’t an autoimmune condition that can’t be helped by eliminating gluten.
Food intolerances are often the root cause of chronic inflammation, including migraines. Dr. Mark Hyman says wheat and gluten are among the biggest triggers of headaches and migraines. He also suggests other foods, like corn, dairy, eggs and yeast can trigger migraines and headaches.
Furthermore, researchers from Columbia University in New York found a greater incidence of headaches and severe headaches in celiac patients. They also found an increased prevalence of gluten sensitivities and inflammatory bowel disorder in those researched who also suffered from headaches.
(9) Nutritional Deficiencies
Gluten may be the root cause of many nutritional deficiencies such as low iron (anemia) absorption. Such vitamin and mineral deficiencies can result in chronic fatigue, low energy and overall weakness. In children, it can create failure to thrive, delayed puberty and short stature.
(10) Muscle and Joint Pain
Fibromyalgia is a disorder that causes fatigue and muscle pain. Researchers have found a high prevalence between celiac disease (CD) and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) in fibromyalgia patients.
This fibromyalgia sufferer realized her gluten sensitivity was the root cause of her fibromyalgia symptoms. Once she went gluten-free, her symptoms greatly improved.
In a 2014 study involving 20 fibromyalgia patients who followed a strict gluten-free diet for 16 months, researchers found “widespread chronic pain improved dramatically for all patients” as well as found improvement in other symptoms such as fatigue, migraines and digestive symptoms.
The Arthritis Foundation published information regarding the link between gluten sensitivity, joint pain and arthritis. The organization suggests arthritis patients get tested for celiac disease, and then, regardless of the diagnosis, go on a gluten-free diet to see if it relieves their joint pain.
Confused about the gluten spectrum? Read Gluten Sensitivity vs. Celiac Disease to learn the differences between the two disorders.