Head into any grocery store or restaurant with healthy options, and you’ll notice labels everywhere that say ‘gluten-free’. Seriously, it seems to have recently become one of the most popular health buzz words.
But is gluten intolerance over-hyped? Or, is eliminating gluten a sustainable change that can drastically improve your quality of life and get rid of a wide range of symptoms?
I wanted to know the answers to these questions, and I found that gluten intolerance is a very real issue that affects a lot of people. But, before we talk about the symptoms of gluten intolerance, let’s discuss what gluten is and how it affects the body.
What is Gluten and How Can It Harm the Body?
Simply put, gluten is a two-part protein (made up of the peptides gliadin and glutenin) commonly found in wheat and many other grains. Gluten is what gives dough its sticky texture, but it is also used in other processed foods, like salad dressing and mayonnaise.
While gluten has been a common part of the human diet for thousands of years, it causes serious health problems in some people. ‘Gluten intolerance’ is an umbrella term often used to describe those health problems, but there is a major difference between complete gluten intolerance and a lower level of gluten intolerance (non-celiac gluten sensitivity).
Complete gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease, is a genetic, autoimmune digestive disorder. When you have celiac disease, gluten triggers an immune response that causes the lining of your small intestine to become inflamed and damaged, which can be quite painful and makes it harder for your body to absorb nutrients and vitamins from food. As a result, celiac disease sufferers must avoid all gluten, all of the time.
Celiac disease has become significantly more common over the last 50 years. In fact, a 2009 study shows that celiac disease increased from 1 in 650 people to 1 in 120 people during that time frame. Now, according to WebMD, about 1 in 100 people have it.
Sounds pretty serious, right? It is, so if you think you might have celiac disease, be on the lookout for these 12 telltale symptoms.
Being bloated is no fun. After all, it makes you feel miserable – it’s like your stomach is about to pop! On top of that, you probably find it hard to squeeze into your favorite pair of jeans because of the extra fluff in your midsection. Yikes.
Gas and constipation are equally, if not more, bothersome. Plus, constipation can become serious if it damages your colon.
Celiac disease can definitely be the cause of these digestive problems. In fact, a study from the American Society of Clinical Nutrition produced some pretty alarming results.
Take a look:
“Celiac disease causes a wide range of gastrointestinal symptoms. Clinicians must have a high level of suspicion to detect the atypical forms of celiac disease. With a gluten-free diet, patients have substantial and rapid improvement of symptoms, including symptoms other than the typical ones of diarrhea, steatorrhea, and weight loss”.
That’s pretty conclusive. Keep this in mind if you’re experiencing an abnormal amount of bloating, gas, and constipation, and having a hard time figuring out why.
I’m sure you already know what diarrhea is – a loose, watery stool that can be accompanied by cramping, vomiting, and other symptoms. While many people experience diarrhea due to medications and bacteria, others experience it when they have celiac disease and eat gluten.
Serious diarrhea can be a major problem because it causes you to lose a lot of electrolytes, which dehydrates your body. If your diarrhea causes severe abdominal or rectal pain, a bloody stool, fever, or signs of dehydration, you should consider seeking medical attention, as these could indicate a more serious issue.
Being tired occasionally isn’t that uncommon. After all, most people work over 40 hours per week and deal with other exhausting responsibilities and stressors too.
What is uncommon is severe fatigue. The kind where you feel like you can’t move. The kind where you can’t motivate yourself, no matter how hard you try.
Fatigue can be distinguished from normal tiredness when you show the following symptoms:
- Difficulty concentrating
- Difficulty starting and completing tasks
- Constant exhaustion
Fatigue itself is usually a symptom of an underlying health problem. You guessed it – celiac disease is one of them.
4. Neurological Problems
A neurological disorder is a disease that involves the brain, spine, and connecting nerves – definitely not anything you should let go unchecked if you’re showing symptoms.
According to a 2008 study, a number of neurological issues can be traced back to celiac disease. Check out findings of this study:
- Peripheral neuropathy (numbness in the hands and feet) – “A whopping 50% of celiac disease patients may develop peripheral neuropathy“.
- Impaired cognitive function – “Dementia may occur in celiac disease, particularly in the form of memory impairment”.
- Gait ataxia (abnormal, uncoordinated movements) – “In biopsy-defined celiac disease, gait ataxia occurs, often associated with neuropathy”.
The same study suggests screening for celiac disease if any of these neurological issues are present, especially if no other cause is apparent.
Pretty much everyone feels sad from time to time. Life can be stressful, and coping can be difficult. However, depression isn’t just normal sadness.
According to WebMD, here are a few symptoms of depression:
- Loss of interest in activities that were once found pleasurable
- Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” feelings
- Feelings of hopelessness and/or pessimism
- Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, and/or helplessness
The scary part is that there are several other ways depression can affect your mood and body. It can even lead to suicide if left untreated. So, it’s important to figure out the cause of depression and get rid of it quickly whenever possible. According to several sources, that cause might just be celiac disease.
Check out this excerpt from Psychology Today about how celiac disease is related to depression:
“Researchers have long observed an overlap between celiac disease and depression. Reports of depression among celiac disease patients have appeared as early as the 1980s. In 1982, Swedish researchers reported that ‘depressive psychopathology is a feature of adult celiac disease and may be a consequence of malabsorption.’ A 1998 study confirmed that about one-third of those with celiac disease also suffer from depression. Adolescents with celiac disease also face higher than normal rates of depression. Adolescents with celiac disease have a 31% risk of depression, while only 7% of healthy adolescents face this risk”.
Further research has suggested that about one-third or more of people with celiac disease also suffer from depression. You have to admit, that’s a pretty alarming amount.
6. Joint Pain
Joint pain is commonly associated with arthritis and aging, but according to About Health, it can also be associated with celiac disease.
Here are the most common locations for joint pain associated with celiac disease:
Researchers haven’t yet determined the exact mechanism that causes joint pain from gluten consumption in celiac disease sufferers. However, it has been speculated that it either stems from the deficiencies associated with gluten that prevent the body from absorbing nutrients properly, or the overall inflammation that gluten consumption causes.
Heartburn is an irritation caused by stomach acid regurgitation into the esophagus. Think about it for a second, have you ever had an uncomfortable burning sensation in your chest that lasted for several miserable hours? Chances are, you were dealing with a bad case of heartburn.
While it’s somewhat common knowledge that meals high in fats and oils often lead to heartburn (step away from the pizza and nobody gets hurt!), not too many people know that celiac disease can be to blame for heartburn as well.
Wondering why this happens?
Well, in celiac disease sufferers, gluten stops the body from absorbing nutrients properly, which weakens the tissues throughout the body – including the ones in the esophagus! When this happens, the esophagus can become less tolerant to the exposure of stomach acids, which can contribute to – you guessed it – painful heartburn.
8. Low Immune Function
Low immune function can be dangerous and lead to a higher risk for diseases like colds and flus. Is your immune system struggling? If you catch colds frequently, have allergies, and are often fatigued, you may have some cause for concern.
Research has shown that celiac disease can cause malnourishment (a lack of sufficient nutrients in the body), which can result in low immune function. This is especially serious because your immune system is what helps you fight off infections, germs, and even cancer.
9. Dental Problems
It’s no secret that going to the dentist isn’t the most fun experience. I can’t think of anyone who actually enjoys it. In fact, most people take great lengths to avoid going.
If you have frequent dental problems, you may want to consider celiac disease as a possible cause. I’m talking about dental issues like:
- Broken teeth
- Tooth decay
According to a 2012 study, these problems can occur in people with celiac disease because “gluten causes the body to produce an immune reaction against one of the main proteins responsible for producing enamel on the teeth”.
10. Mouth Ulcers
You know those tiny, round sores that sometimes develop in your mouth? Well, those are called mouth ulcers, and can be caused by many different things, ranging from emotional stress, to fungal infections, and in some cases celiac disease.
11. Skin Problems
Noticed any strange rashes or unusual looking patches of skin on your body lately? Before you reach for an over-the-counter solution, you may want to consider that gluten could be to blame.
According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, here are some of the skin problems associated with celiac disease:
- Dermatitis herpetiformis
These problems often occur because gluten triggers an immune response, resulting in the production of antibodies that circulate in the bloodstream and get deposited into the dermis. The interaction is the cause of skin flare-ups, especially in the case of dermatitis herpetiformis.
12. Unexplained Weight Loss or Gain
Have you suddenly lost several pounds without changing your diet or exercise routine?
According to Mayo Clinic, weight loss is one of the classic signs of celiac disease (along with diarrhea). So, if you’ve noticed your pants fitting more loosely lately, and you’re also experiencing other concerning symptoms, consider that celiac disease could be to blame.
In children, on the other hand, celiac disease is often associated with weight gain. In fact, as many as 75% of children with celiac disease are overweight or obese.
13. Female Hormonal Imbalance
Hormonal imbalance in women can be a major problem, affecting everything from mood to weight. Of course, women naturally experience hormonal changes during menopause. But why would they experience these symptoms otherwise? The answer could be celiac disease.
Here are a few of the signs of hormonal imbalance in women that you should look out for:
- Low libido
- Persistent weight gain
- Digestive issues
If you are experiencing all of these, you might want to consider getting checked for celiac disease. Even if the test comes back negative, think about reducing your gluten consumption anyway. The reason for this is that research points to gluten ingestion causing hormonal imbalance, even in people who do not have celiac disease.
So, what can you do if you think you’re completely gluten intolerant?
Unfortunately, there is no known cure for celiac disease. If you have it, you absolutely must cut out all gluten from your diet. That being said, according to Scientific American, most people should not eat a gluten-free diet. So, if you aren’t sure whether or not you have celiac disease, you should consult your doctor before you make a major dietary change like removing gluten.
To test for celiac disease, you can schedule an appointment with your doctor to get some simple blood work done. The results will show whether or not you have it.
If your results are negative and you are still showing symptoms, keep in mind that people with celiac disease aren’t the only ones affected by gluten. Many other people have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and they experience a reaction caused by gluten that results in unpleasant gastrointestinal symptoms.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can also cause several of the same symptoms as celiac disease like fatigue, depression, and heartburn, but it does not cause damage to the small intestine like celiac disease does.
Unfortunately, there is no real test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity. So, if you think you are suffering from it, consider limiting your gluten intake after consulting your doctor and see if your symptoms improve.
Remember, always take your symptoms seriously and don’t put off talking to your doctor about your concerns. Your body will thank you later.
Have you tried cutting down on your gluten consumption? What were your results? Share your story in the comments below!