Gluten intolerance is a common food sensitivity that affects millions of people. Unlike food allergies, which are triggered by the immune system, a food intolerance usually stems from an inability to digest certain foods. A complete inability to process gluten is celiac disease, a severe autoimmune disorder that can be life-threatening if not properly diagnosed. For most people, however, gluten intolerance manifests with mild to moderate symptoms that impact the digestive system and energy levels.
Bloating is one of the most common signs of gluten intolerance; it occurs when the body struggles to break down and process gluten in the food we eat. This can result in gas that causes the abdomen to swell. Bloating is often accompanied by flatulence and physical discomfort. This symptom will likely manifest to some degree every time an affected person eats food that contains gluten. That includes anything made with wheat, rye, or barley, and processed and packaged foods that contain these grains. To prevent bloating, most affected people need to eliminate these foods from their diet.
Researchers don’t understand the link between headaches and gluten intolerance very well. They do know, however, the people with gluten intolerance may experience recurring severe headaches or migraines. Often, people who get migraines do not recognize this as a result of eating gluten. Trying a gluten-free diet could help reduce the number, duration, and intensity of headaches and migraines if gluten intolerance is the problem.
Because those with gluten intolerance are unable to digest gluten properly, it may cause a wide array of digestive symptoms, including abdominal cramping. This pain occurs when muscles in the digestive tract spasm. Depending on the severity of the intolerance, this pain ranges from mild to very intense. A doctor can prescribe medicine that will alleviate this symptom. However, when gluten is the cause, the best remedy is to cut foods that contain gluten from one’s diet.
In severe cases of gluten intolerance, including celiac disease, people may experience a rash known as dermatitis herpetiformis. The itchy skin condition can develop all over the body, most commonly on the knees, elbows, buttocks, and scalp. Many describe it as blisters or bumps that burn. As with many symptoms, individuals may not initially realize the cause.
About a quarter of people with gluten intolerance have recurring constipation. Bowel movement frequency declines, which may result in cramping and abdominal pain. Typically, constipation makes a person strain during bowel movements, which can cause other problems. Taking laxatives and other medication meant to induce bowel movements too often can also cause damage over time.
Diarrhea is an unpleasant symptom of gluten intolerance, in which bowel movements are loose, watery, and may smell foul. About half of people with gluten intolerance experience this symptom instead of constipation. This digestion complication occurs when damage to the intestines makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients. Consuming gluten can trigger cramping and spasms in the digestive tract that force food to move too quickly through the body. As a result, the food is forced out before it can be properly digested. This can result in secondary symptoms such as dehydration and exhaustion because the process expels useful nutrients and electrolytes before they can be absorbed.
People with gluten intolerance often have difficulty absorbing nutrients, which leads to deficiencies. Iron-deficiency anemia can cause fatigue. Others lose electrolytes through digestive issues such as diarrhea, which also reduces energy. Fatigue is often worst directly after a gluten-sensitive person eats a problematic food because the body has to work so hard to try to digest the gluten. Many people with gluten intolerance who switch to a gluten-free diet report quickly feeling more energetic and less fatigued within days of making the change.
Depression and Anxiety
Researchers have found that gluten intolerance often correlates with depression and anxiety. One common theory is that experiencing chronic discomfort and pain, along with fatigue, can lead to stress and feelings of hopelessness. Other research suggests leaky gut syndrome, a non-medical term for changes that occur to the thin lining of the intestinal tract. The lining develops small gaps that allow bacteria and other proteins to leak out of the intestines and into the bloodstream. Inflammation, medications, stress, poor gut health, and autoimmune diseases are possible triggers for this poorly understood condition.
Unexplained Aches and Pains
Some people with gluten intolerance experience joint and muscle pain, numbness in the arms and legs, and body aches. Gluten can cause inflammation, the most likely cause of this discomfort [, although inflammation is most apparent in people with Celiac disease. The exact cause of non-celiac gluten intolerance and the aches and pains that go along with it isn’t clear. Also, nutrient deficiencies from a lack of proper absorption can contribute to these issues. In most cases, people who cut gluten out of their diets report feeling healthier, with fewer aches and pains. Celiac disease is also more common in people with autoimmune issues. It is important to talk to a physician to make sure the pain is not a symptom of another condition.
For those with a severe gluten intolerance such as celiac disease, continuing to consume gluten can be a dangerous choice. The body’s inability to digest gluten can lead to inflammation and damage to the intestines. This makes it difficult to absorb other nutrients, as well. Initially, this may present as weight loss, but if gluten intolerance is not properly diagnosed or an individual does not make diet adjustments, this can eventually lead to malnutrition.