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 (for example, leaky gut syndrome, bloating and brain fog)
- 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 levels (the root of most diseases), 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:
- Digestive and IBS symptoms, including abdominal pain, cramping, bloating, constipation or diarrhea
- “Brain fog,” difficulty concentrating and trouble remembering information
- Frequent headaches
- Mood-related changes, including anxiety and increased depression symptoms
- Ongoing low energy levels and chronic fatigue syndrome
- Muscle and joint pains
- Numbness and tingling in the arms and legs
- Reproductive problems and infertility
- Skin issues, including dermatitis, eczema, rosacea and skin rashes (also called a “gluten rash” or “gluten intolerance rash”)
- Nutrient deficiencies, including anemia (iron deficiency)
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. 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.
As you can see, when it comes to gluten intolerance and symptoms, it can look different for everyone. Join me for next week for part 2, where I'll be covering even more on gluten intolerance and symptoms to look out for.
As always - leave me your questions in the comments so I can share even more with you!
xox, Dr. G