What’s the deal with gluten? It’s a type of protein found in grains including wheat, barley and rye. It makes up about 80 percent of the amino acids (the building blocks of proteins) found in these grains. Although gluten isn’t actually found in many other ancient grains like oats, quinoa, rice or corn, modern food-processing techniques usually contaminate these foods with gluten since they are processed using the same equipment where wheat is processed.

On top of this, gluten is now used to help make many highly processed chemical additives that are found in packaged foods of all kinds. Coupled with the fact that manufacturing can lead to cross-contamination, this means trace amounts of gluten often wind up in food products that are seemingly gluten-free — like salad dressings, condiments, deli meats and candy. This makes a  Gluten free diet more challenging than it might initially seem.

In the U.S., it’s estimated that grain flours (especially wheat products containing gluten), vegetable oils and added sugar now make up about 70 percent of the total calories most people consume each day! Clearly, that is not an ideal way of eating, but even if you are consuming a healthy whole foods based diet, are you still struggling with signs of gluten intolerance? You might end up being surprised by how some common unwanted healthy symptoms could be linked to that piece of toast you ate at breakfast this morning.

What Is Gluten Intolerance?

Gluten intolerance is different than Celiac Disease, which is the disorder that’s diagnosed when someone has a true allergy to gluten. Celiac is actually believed to be a rare disease, affecting about 1 percent or less of adults. Some research suggests that for every person diagnosed with celiac disease, another six patients go undiagnosed despite having celiac-related damage to the gut. 

Symptoms of celiac disease or a true gluten allergy include malnutrition, stunted growth, cancer, severe neurological and psychiatric illness and even death. However, even when someone tests negative for celiac disease, there’s still a chance he or she can have a gluten intolerance, which poses many risks of its own.

For many decades in the Western medical field, the mainstream view of gluten intolerance was that you either have it, or you don’t. In other words, you either test positive for celiac disease and have a gluten allergy, or you test negative and, therefore, should have no reason to avoid gluten-containing foods. However, today, ongoing research studies along with anecdotal evidence (people’s actual experiences) show that gluten intolerance symptoms aren’t so “black and white” after all.

We now know that gluten intolerance symptoms fall along a spectrum and having a sensitivity to gluten isn’t necessarily all-or-nothing. That means that it’s possible to have gluten intolerance symptoms without having celiac disease. A new term called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) has been given to this type of condition.

People with NCGS fall somewhere in the middle of the spectrum: They don’t have celiac disease, yet they feel noticeably better when they avoid gluten. The extent to which this is true depends on the exact person, since different people can react negatively to gluten to different degrees. In people with gluten intolerance or NCGS, researchers have found that certain factors usually apply, including:

  • Test negative for celiac disease (using two types of criteria, histopathology and immunoglobulin E, also called IgE) despite having similar symptoms
  • Report experiencing both gastrointestinal and non-gastrointestinal symptoms
  • Experience improvements in these gluten sensitivity symptoms when on a gluten-free diet

Gluten Intolerance Symptoms

Damage done by gluten-related disorders, including celiac disease and NCGS, goes beyond just the gastrointestinal tract. Recent research over the past several decades suggests that gluten intolerance symptoms show up in almost every system within the body: the central nervous system (including the brain), endocrine system, cardiovascular system (including the health of the heart and blood vessels), reproductive system and skeletal system.

Because gluten intolerance can lead to autoimmune reactions and increased inflammation, it’s associated with numerous diseases. But the problem is that many people fail to attribute these symptoms to an undiagnosed food sensitivity. Gluten sensitivity symptoms also get ignored and they persist as no dietary changes are made by the person unknowingly suffering with a gluten sensitivity. What are the first signs of gluten intolerance? It’s time to take a look at this gluten intolerance symptoms checklist.

Symptoms of gluten intolerance or non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) are widespread and can include:

  1. Digestive ncluding abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, constipation or diarrhea
  2. “Brain fog,” difficulty concentrating and trouble remembering information
  3. Frequent headaches
  4. Mood-related changes, including anxiety and increased depression symptoms
  5. Ongoing low energy levels
  6. Muscle and joint pains
  7. Numbness and tingling in the arms and legs
  8. Reproductive problems and infertility
  9. Skin issues, including dermatitis, eczema, rosacea and skin rashes (also called a “gluten rash” or “gluten intolerance rash”)
  10. Nutrient deficiencies, including anemia (iron deficiency)

Gluten intolerance has also been associated with a higher risk for learning disabilities, including autism and ADHD. Additionally, there may be higher risk for neurological and psychiatric diseases, including dementia and Alzheimer’s. 

How is gluten capable of causing so many different problems? Despite what most people think, gluten intolerance (and celiac disease) is more than just a digestive problem. That’s because research suggests that non-celiac gluten sensitivity can result in significant changes to the gut microbiome with an increase in pathogenic microbes. This is a big problem considering that our overall health depends heavily on the health of our gut. 

Gluten intolerance can affect almost every cell, tissue and system in the body since the bacteria that populate the gut help control everything from nutrient absorption and hormone production to metabolic function and cognitive processes.

Causes of Gluten Intolerance

There are multiple factors that can make people more likely to experience gluten intolerance symptoms: their overall diet  damage to the gut flora, immune status, genetic factors, and  can all play a part.

The exact way that gluten causes varied symptoms in many people has to do with its effects on the digestive tract and gut first and foremost. Gluten is considered an “antinutrient” and is therefore hard to digest for nearly all people, whether they have a gluten intolerance or not.

Antinutrients are certain substances naturally present in plant foods, including grains, legumes, nuts and seeds. Plants contain antinutrients as a built-in defense mechanism; they have a biological imperative to survive and reproduce just like humans and animals do. Because plants can’t defend themselves from predators by escaping, they evolved to protect their species by carrying antinutrient “toxins” (which in some cases can actually be beneficial to humans when they have the ability to fight off infections, bacteria or pathogens in the body).

Gluten is one type of antinutrient found in grains that has the following effects when eaten by humans: 

  • It may interfere with normal digestion and can cause bloating, gas, constipation and diarrhea due to its effect on bacteria living in the gut.
  • It can produce damage to the lining of the gut, causing “leaky gut syndrome” and autoimmune reactions in some cases.
  • It binds to certain amino acids (proteins), essential vitamins and minerals, making them unabsorbable.

Leaky Gut Syndrome is tied to gluten intolerance, which is a disorder that develops when tiny openings form in the gut lining and then large proteins and gut microbes leak across the gut barrier. Molecules that are usually kept within the gut are then able to enter the bloodstream and travel throughout the body, where they can provoke a chronic, low-grade inflammatory response.

Interesting Facts

Some estimates suggest that six to 10 times more people have a form of gluten intolerance than have celiac disease. That means 1 in 10 adults might have some form of NCGS or gluten intolerance. However, that being said, at this time it’s difficult for researchers to estimate the exact prevalence of gluten intolerances and NCGS because there still isn’t a definitive diagnostic test that’s used or consensus over which symptoms must be present. 

It’s also hard to diagnose NCGS accurately because many of the symptoms caused by gluten are broad and very similar to symptoms caused by other disorders (like fatigue, body pains and mood changes). As I mentioned earlier, there especially seems to be a big overlap between irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) symptoms and gluten intolerance. 

Many people with IBS feel better when they follow a gluten-free diet. In people with IBS, gluten might cause symptoms to worsen, but it’s also a possibility that other attributes of wheat besides gluten (like amylase-trypsin inhibitors and low-fermentable, poorly absorbed, short-chain carbohydrates) can lead to poor digestion. 

Final Thoughts

Although once thought to be little more than myth, science has revealed that gluten intolerance does exist in individuals who do not also have celiac disease.

A person may have this intolerance, medically referred to as non celiac gluten sensitivity, if they do not test positive for celiac disease but still experience gluten intolerance symptoms and notice an improvement when eliminating gluten from their diet.

For some, gluten is the culprit behind symptoms. There is also some evidence that wheat, not just gluten, causes these symptoms in certain individuals. 

A natural treatment plan to treat gluten intolerance symptoms includes doing the following:

  1. Try an elimination diet
  2. Follow a gluten-free diet
  3. Consider having tests done