Many people have disorders that cause symptoms after they eat food containing gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. Celiac disease is one of these disorders. When people with celiac disease consume gluten, the body’s own immune system responds, causing damage to the small intestine and a wide range of symptoms. Lab studies can diagnose the disorder, and when confirmed, patients must avoid gluten-containing foods.
However, some patients may have similar symptoms after consuming gluten, but no lab abnormalities can be found when they are tested. These individuals are said to have gluten sensitivity, which affects about 13 percent of the adult population in the U.S.
What are the symptoms associated with gluten sensitivity?
Patients with gluten sensitivity may exhibit gastrointestinal (GI) symptoms after consuming gluten, as well as some non-GI symptoms. Generally, the symptoms follow the ingestion of gluten within a few hours or days.
GI symptoms may include:
- Bloating and gas – The abdomen feels swollen and tender after ingesting gluten.
- Diarrhea or Constipation – While some people will develop diarrhea after eating gluten, a small percentage will get backed up instead.
- Abdominal pain – Pain and cramps are the most common symptom of gluten sensitivity, affecting over 80 percent of those with the disorder.
- Nausea – This can occur on its own, with other GI symptoms, or with migraines brought on by gluten.
Non-GI symptoms may include:
- Headache – Those with gluten sensitivity appear to be more prone to migraines, severe headaches accompanied by nausea and sensitivity to light and sound
- Brain fog – Some people find that they experience memory lapses, difficulty finding the right word, or similar cognitive issues with gluten consumption.
- Joint pain – While it isn’t as common as it is celiac disease, gluten sensitivity appear to be associated with painful joints.
- Unusual sensation in the extremities – For those who are sensitive to gluten, the hands and feet can be affected with numbness, tingling, or pain after consumption.
- Fatigue – Many people with gluten sensitivity experience severe fatigue to the point that making it through a normal day can be a challenge.
- Depression – While many people have depression, those with depression due to gluten insensitivity often experience such feelings within three days of consuming gluten
- Dry, itchy skin – This is fairly common in those with gluten intolerance, but it is different from dermatitis herpetiformis, the skin disorder seen in celiac disease.
Since so many foods contain gluten, it is very difficult to eliminate symptoms without a concerted effort to remove gluten from the diet.
When should I see the doctor for gluten sensitivity?
The treatment for gluten sensitivity is avoiding gluten in the food you choose to eat. It might be tempting to eliminate gluten from your diet and leave it at that. However, it is important to see your doctor if you experience the symptoms described above after consuming gluten.
Many of these symptoms overlap other disorders of gluten tolerance such as celiac disease or a true gluten allergy. Some of the symptoms can also be signs of other illnesses, such as inflammatory bowel disease. This makes seeing a physician and getting an accurate diagnosis very important, as treatment needs to be tailored to the specific diagnosis for the best long term results.