Every year, science and research continues to expand our knowledge and understanding of our bodies and the way they work. One of the areas of research that has expanded, particularly in the western world, is how we, as a society, look at gluten and its impact on our bodies. We’ve uncovered this protein that is capable of wreaking havoc on the body. In order to understand the impact that gluten intolerance has, it’s important to know what gluten is, how gluten interacts with the body, potential symptoms, the long term consequences of undiagnosed gluten intolerance, and how to diagnose and manage the condition.
A quick word of caution: gluten intolerance is being debated as either an umbrella term for various conditions and diseases or a condition itself. Even medical journals call it “a new frontier” and there’s a lot we don’t know about gluten intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity at this time.
What is gluten?
Gluten is more than just bread, pasta, or carbs. If ingredients come from wheat, or certain grains, it’s highly likely that they contain gluten. Specifically, gluten is a protein compound. In some cases, that protein compound is difficult for the body to break down, causing adverse reactions throughout. As stated, this protein is found most commonly in wheat, although it may also be found in barley, rye, and other grains as well.
As a protein, the function of gluten is to act as a binder; it helps foods to keep and maintain their shape. Some compare it to a form of glue, holding the food together.
Since gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye, the list of foods it affects is extensive. It includes breads and pastas, malted products (like beer), cereals, alcohols, sauce, and many baked goods. Many of these foods are considered common staple items amongst American families, which makes it difficult to avoid or replace. The expansive list of foods that contain gluten contributes to the difficulties in diagnosing and recognizing the impact of gluten on the body.
Wheat is listed by the FDA as one of the top eight most common allergen foods amongst Americans. This list of major food allergens includes milk, eggs, shellfish, soybeans, fish, nuts, and wheat. According to the FDA, 90% of food allergens are actually caused by these eight foods in particular.
The real challenge comes with the fact that so much of what we consume on a daily basis includes one of these eight foods. For many people who are allergic to any of these ingredients, even the smallest amount can trigger an intense and damaging reaction on the body. When foods are not properly or fully labeled, people with gluten allergies or intolerance can find themselves suffering. For example, an entirely vegetarian salad might contain traces of wheat in the dressing. To be able to avoid some of these allergens might be a challenge when restaurants or food labels don’t specifically state those allergens on their labels, considering the minuscule quantities they might include.
While avoiding some of these allergens can be difficult, getting diagnosed might be an even bigger challenge. For many people with gluten intolerance or allergies, the symptoms can be vastly different, and not even related to digestion as one might expect.
More common allergies, like peanut allergies, can induce symptoms that make an allergic reaction more identifiable, like swelling in the face, difficulties breathing, and spotty rashes. Doctors can easily trace the symptoms to the reaction.
However, gluten intolerances might induce symptoms that are more sporadic, like headaches, bloating, irritable bowels, and stomach aches.
Understanding the differences between wheat allergies, celiac, and gluten intolerance
The differences in symptoms of gluten intolerances and wheat allergies stem from the basic fact that the two are significantly different problems, though they are caused by the same ingredient.
With wheat allergies, the body is having a negative reaction to the presence of wheat, and this reaction specifically affects the antibodies and the immune system. Food intolerances, on the other hand, actually mean that the body has challenges with digesting the food itself, rather than reacting to gluten. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by the presence of gluten (including wheat).
One of the distinguishing factors between wheat allergies and gluten intolerance is that those with wheat allergies cannot consume even the smallest amount of wheat/gluten without experiencing the symptoms pretty quickly.
On the other hand, with a gluten intolerance, it might take a larger amount of gluten in order to trigger a physical reaction. In short, allergies will almost always trigger a reaction, while intolerances will only be triggered if enough quantities are consumed.
However, these quantities will vary depending on the sensitivity of the disease. Some people who suffer from gluten intolerance will experience more severe and immediate symptoms to smaller quantities of gluten, while others might experience fewer symptoms and with more gluten consumed.
Because of the ranging severity of allergies, they can cause anything from minor scratchiness to full-blown anaphylaxis. With food intolerances, reactions are more uncomfortable and irritating, even reaching the scale of painful, depending on the severity of one’s condition.
The reaction time to a wheat allergy is also significantly quicker than a reaction to gluten intolerance. An allergy means there is a reaction to the compound of gluten, while intolerances require the food to begin digestion before there is a reaction.
Lastly, with general intolerances, there is no specific test to diagnose, while allergies have specific tests that can be performed with highly accurate diagnoses.
However, these differences are not to establish allergies as more severe than intolerances. Although intolerances might seem less serious when compared to symptoms like anaphylaxis, severe cases of gluten intolerance can have lasting and damaging impacts on the body.
When it comes to a physical intolerance to gluten, one of the most severe forms of the condition is celiac disease.
Celiac disease is actually an autoimmune disease that impacts 1 in 100 Americans. When left undiagnosed, celiac disease, in particular, can lead to gastrointestinal problems, reproductive issues, anemia, osteoporosis, malnutrition, weight loss, poor brain function, and exhaustion. It can be hard for the body to recover from these long-term symptoms.
Before we proceed, we should also note that celiac disease, an autoimmune condition, is at the extreme end of gluten sensitivity. The two terms should not be used interchangeably. Which is why we dedicated the next section to better understanding celiac disease in the content of gluten sensitivity.
Understanding celiac disease and gluten sensitivity
It can be challenging to understand the differences between the variations of intolerances to gluten. Whereas celiac disease is the most severe type of gluten intolerance, gluten sensitivity is a more mild types of gluten intolerance.
If an intolerance to glutenwere measured with a scale, on the more extreme end we would find celiac disease. On the less intense and dangerous side, we would find gluten sensitivity. Though it is more mild, gluten sensitivity can still induce many of the same symptoms as celiac disease.
Treating gluten sensitivity can be more challenging because there currently is no cure for it.
Gluten sensitivity is often diagnosed by process of elimination via one’s diet, cutting out certain foods and seeing which leads to a reduction in known symptoms.
Celiac disease, on the other hand, can actually be diagnosed through tests looking for biomarkers. Read on to find more about finding a diagnosis.
Common signs you might be suffering from gluten intolerance
The symptoms of gluten intolerance might range from person to person, but the eight most common symptoms include bloating, gas, or abdominal pain, diarrhea or constipation, nausea, headache, brain fog, joint pain, numbness in the legs, arms or fingers, and fatigue.
Not all individuals will experience all of these symptoms, and a diagnosis based on the symptoms alone might be challenging. If one finds him or herself experiencing any number of the following symptoms, it’s important to talk to a licensed physician.
Bloating, gas, or abdominal pain
Bloating, gas, and abdominal pain are some of the most common symptoms of gluten intolerance. Because the gluten is not able to be broken down by the body, it wreaks havoc on the digestive system.
As the body attempts to digest the proteins with significant difficulties, extra gasses are released.
This can lead to the belly being tight and swollen, it might be tender to the touch, and it might be aching and painful. These symptoms might last a few hours as the body continues to attempt to break down the proteins. These can cause discomfort, irritation, and pain, depending on the severity and the individual.
Diarrhea or constipation
Once the gluten has passed through the initial stages of digestion, it still needs to leave the body. Because the body was unable to break down the proteins that makeup gluten, they will impact the form of the stool as the body expels the food. Loose, watery stools indicate a lack of absorption of nutrients and can lead to malnutrition as well as dehydration. Hard, darkened, and painful stools indicate the body is struggling to properly digest and release food within the body.Both diarrhea and constipation are serious symptoms when they occur on a regular basis, and can greatly impact an individual’s long term health.
As the small intestines work to break down the gluten proteins, one might experience mild to severe nausea. Nausea is often depicted as feelings of uneasiness in the stomach, where one might sense the need to vomit.
This can make eating a challenge, but can also impact one’s ability to do their job, interact with others, and complete daily functions. It can also lead to malnutrition and dehydration if an individual is unable to consume water or food as a result of their nausea.
Mild to severe headaches are yet another common symptom of gluten intolerance. Individuals might find themselves in pain, ranging in severity, that can impact their ability to work, drive, function, and interact. Regular activities can become impossible with more severe headaches.
Headaches can be mildly uncomfortable, or they can be more intense and painful. As the body works harder than necessary to break down certain foods, it might lead to other areas being in pain, such as with the headaches.
Along with the headaches, another brain-symptom of gluten intolerance is brain fog or a state of confusion or forgetfulness without a clear explanation. If we’re sleep-deprived or had consumed alcohol, the source of brain fog is clear.
However, to experience a state of confusion without cause can be highly concerning. It can also impact one’s ability to engage in conversations, complete tasks, remember things, and focus and retain information. This can negatively impact one’s work-life as well as their personal life.
Joint pain is another symptom of gluten intolerance. As the body continues to try to break down the gluten being passed through the digestive system, individuals might experience short term or long term joint pain.
Whether in the arms or legs, pain can range in severity, and can be uncomfortable but manageable in some, or severe and crippling in others. Like many of the other symptoms, it can impact one’s ability to complete tasks, workout, or engage in activities.
When left untreated, this joint pain can cause damage that can be difficult to return from.
Numbness in the legs, arms, or fingers
Experiencing numbness and tingling in both the feet and legs as well as the fingers and arms can also be indicative of gluten intolerance.
A mild sensation of feeling numb can travel through the body. This can be concerning in an individual and might indicate issues with the nervous system or blood flow.
Fatigue or a state of exhaustion or lethargy is also a common symptom of gluten intolerance. It may be a symptom of the body trying to breakdown a material that it cannot easily process, therefore spending more energy in the digestive area.
If more blood needs to be drawn to the digestive organs because they work harder than normal to properly digest food, the rest of the body will experience a deficiency. This deficiency leads to a state of feeling tired and unenergetic.
The feeling of tiredness can also result from the body’s inability to properly digest food, like malnutrition or dehydration caused by diarrhea or constipation.
Fatigue can lead to an entire other spectrum of issues, like depression, or lifestyle changes, as a person experiencing fatigue might find themselves unable to properly work or engage in daily activities.
Getting diagnosed with gluten intolerance
As with any disease or illness, a diagnosis alone can bring significant relief. The symptoms of gluten intolerance are more than simple digestion issues. As research shows, the body is impacted in a variety of ways when it is unable to break down or tolerate gluten-based foods.
The challenge with gluten intolerance is that some individuals may experience many of the more common symptoms. While some might experience very few symptoms or only a few of the rare symptoms associated with this condition. These symptoms can be damaging to a person, but when left undiagnosed, the long term damage can be extensive and permanent. For these reasons, an accurate and early diagnosis is important.
In addition, the less severe cases like gluten sensitivity don’t have any test to diagnose. However, the most severe condition, celiac disease, can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. A negative blood test for celiac disease doesn’t automatically eliminate all gluten intolerances as part of a potential diagnosis.
It’s always important to consult with your primary care physician regarding any medical health concerns you might be experiencing. Conducting research and being informed are always beneficial in helping find a diagnosis, but symptoms alone can make diagnosis difficult.
One accurate method of testing for biomarkers associated with the disease is the at-home test through imaware™. It is a convenient, accurate, and reliable solution to diagnosing celiac disease. It allows privacy, but it also empowers individuals to find out for themselves what is going on with their body.
By screening for biomarkers, we are able to identify the intolerance for gluten in the body. Once a diagnosis of gluten intolerance (whether celiac disease or gluten sensitivity) is found, diet and lifestyle changes can be made in order to alleviate the symptoms of the disease.
Children, too, can be diagnosed with gluten intolerance. Although the symptoms might not be the exact same, failure to diagnose a child early on may have a damaging, lasting impact on their development. The earlier a diagnosis can be made on a child, the less damage is done on their body.
Managing a diet that is gluten free
A diagnosis of gluten intolerance is becoming more and more common by the day. Unfortunately, there currently is no outright cure for celiac disease or any form of gluten intolerance.
While no simple pill can cure someone of their symptoms, the condition becomes very manageable with a diet that avoids all gluten-foods and products. As awareness increases, the ability to manage the illness also becomes easier. Individuals who are able to stay free of any gluten foods in their diet are able to experience a normal lifestyle and avoid the symptoms of gluten intolerance.
First and foremost, many restaurants and grocery stores have begun labeling foods as “GF” or “gluten-free”, which provides an easier way for consumers to identify which products they can and cannot eat. Although the labeling makes it significantly easier to find the right products, it’s not an entire, stand-alone solution.
Research leads to familiarity. Researching commonly used products or foods in your diet or recipes can also help with increasing your awareness of what products do in fact contain gluten. Since even the smallest amount of gluten might trigger a reaction, it’s crucial for individuals to be aware of the ingredients that go into what they eat.
The stigma that still resides around gluten is also part of the challenge.
Peanut allergies are common and recognized and are often given more serious care and attention. The fact that some airlines no longer provide peanuts as a snack due to the increase in allergies pretty obviously suggests that it’s taken seriously as a health condition.
It is important that individuals with gluten allergies or gluten intolerances find a way to be more comfortable sharing their dietary needs. Asking questions is one of the best ways to discover what’s in the food being served or made. Awareness is crucial.
As the research continues and as more and more people become aware of the reality of gluten as a key allergen in diets, this stigma will eventually wash away and become more respected, like other key allergies.
This recognition is already starting to be seen in the fact that many grocery stores offer alternatives for wheat-products. Shoppers are finding themselves with multiple options like coconut flour or almond flour instead of wheat flour, just like they can find almond milk or coconut milk instead of cow’s milk.
Working with nutritionists and dieticians to figure out alternative foods or foods to avoid can also help. Some can find it too challenging to maintain a gluten-free diet that is well-balanced and that provides them with all their nutritional needs. It’s important to maintain balance in one’s diet while avoiding a large list of foods.
Lastly, finding a support system can also help those with gluten intolerances. Finding support systems whether in person or online can not only promote awareness but decrease the feeling of loneliness among those with the disease. It can help support individuals and empower them to feel more comfortable talking about and informing others of their condition.
Although an entire diet and lifestyle changes might seem drastic to those who need to go gluten-free, it is doable and it is a manageable diet.
Consulting with professionals, preparing your own food, building a sense of community with others who have the condition, and helping promote awareness about the condition will all contribute to improving the global understanding of the condition and decrease the negative impact gluten has on the body.