Gluten-free, gluten-sensitive, gluten-allergies, celiac disease—these terms are everywhere nowadays and chances are, you’ve probably seen them in grocery stores or restaurants. But how much do you truly know about gluten? What exactly is it and how do you know if you should eliminate it from your diet?
In this article, we’ll be taking a closer look at gluten and the most common signs of gluten sensitivity. While most people do not suffer from celiac disease, it’s entirely possible that many can still experience immense benefits by cutting gluten out of their diet.
What is Celiac Disease?
We’ll start by looking at celiac disease, which is a long-term autoimmune disorder that primarily affects the small intestine. (1) It’s caused by a reaction to gluten, which is a mixture of two proteins found primarily in wheat, barley, and rye.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
Symptoms include bloating, leaky gut, diarrhea and other gastrointestinal symptoms, along with a loss of appetite and malabsorption. It is often diagnosed in young children, and primary symptoms are often first noticed between six months and two years of age. (2)
Beyond two years of age, non-classic symptoms become more common and vary wildly. They can range from the aforementioned gastrointestinal disturbances to symptoms involving any part of the body.
On occasion, there are no obvious symptoms, making it difficult to diagnose properly. If celiac disease is left untreated, it could possibly lead to certain types of cancers developing as well as intestinal lymphomas. (3)
Treatment for Celiac Disease
The only known effective treatment for celiac disease is to follow a gluten-free diet.
By adhering to a gluten-free diet, people are able to recover intestinal mucosa, improve their intestinal symptoms, and drastically lower the risk of complications that can develop as a result of the condition. (4)
So, cutting out gluten is effective for treating celiac disease, but is it beneficial for someone who doesn’t suffer from celiac? Well, it depends.
Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS)
Some people may experience many of the same symptoms associated with celiac disease even though they test negative for it. When this occurs, it’s described as either non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) or non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS). (5)
In the case of sensitivity, removing gluten also addresses the root issue and usually resolves any symptoms.
On the other hand, some people who regularly consume gluten (without any negative symptoms) feel better overall after removing gluten from their diet. And then there are, of course, those individuals who can eat all the gluten they want without issue. They feel the same with or without gluten each day.
Should You Remove Gluten from Your Diet?
Unless you’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease or notice obvious symptoms when you eat gluten, it’s difficult to decide whether you should remove gluten or not.
The best path forward is to follow an elimination protocol: cut gluten out of your diet for three to five days and record how you feel.
If you find noticeable health improvements, consider sticking with a gluten-free diet permanently. Likewise, if you find no noticeable changes, feel free to continue eating gluten products as usual.
Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity or Gluten Intolerance
What are the signs of gluten sensitivity or intolerance you should look for? There have been more than 200 reported symptoms associated with celiac disease, but we’ll focus on the most commonly reported symptoms associated with being unable to tolerate gluten.
1. Gluten sensitivity may cause digestive issues, pain or discomfort.
The most common symptom of gluten sensitivity is, of course, having issues with digestion. Many people experience abdominal pain when digesting gluten due to the enzymes your gut secretes during digestion. These enzymes are responsible for breaking proteins down into the amino acids your body needs.
However, a specific protein found within the gluten-matrix, known as gliadin, is troublesome for these digestion enzymes. The difficulty in breaking this protein down results in systemic inflammation, which in turn causes pain for those with trouble digesting gluten. (6)
In addition to pain in the gut, this process also contributes to many of the other common digestive complaints reported, such as gas, bloating, and constipation. (7)
2. Gluten sensitivity may cause brain fog and other cognitive side effects.
More than simple fatigue, brain fog makes it difficult to concentrate on tasks at hand; people describe feeling like they are stuck in a kind of “haze.” As it turns out, gluten can be directly linked to brain fog, as well as actual brain damage seen by scans. (8)
This is especially dangerous as it’s been reported that most people who suffer neurological symptoms from gluten intolerance don’t have any digestive symptoms, making it difficult to accurately diagnose the culprit. (9)
If you have trouble focusing, feel fatigued, or notice any strange neurological symptoms that can’t be explained otherwise (such as seizures or migraines), an elimination protocol is a good practice to rule out gluten as the cause.
3. Gluten sensitivity may cause mood disorders such as anxiety or depression.
It’s well known that factors such as diet and exercise play an important role when it comes to mood disorders like anxiety and depression. (10)
A healthy diet along with a regular exercise routine helps ease symptoms for many people who suffer from these conditions. However, the opposite is true as well: if an individual who is sensitive to gluten eats a product that contains the protein, it can directly impact the way they feel, making anxiety even worse.
In fact, a study was performed in which individuals who suffered from anxiety and depression were diagnosed with celiac disease as well. They were monitored after switching to a gluten-free diet and saw noticeable improvements in their mental states. (11)
3. Gluten sensitivity may cause inflammation, swelling, and pain.
It’s not uncommon for certain people who eat wheat or other products containing gluten to experience pain in their joints. In fact, researchers have known of a link between those with autoimmune forms of arthritis and celiac disease for some time. (12)
Further, it’s becoming widely accepted that unexplained joint pain is also caused by gluten products. For those who are gluten-sensitive, consuming gluten provokes an immune system response, which raises levels of inflammation throughout the body.
Sometimes this will cause noticeable redness and swelling on the body. Other times, the only detectable sign of inflammation is pain within the joints themselves. (13)
4. Gluten sensitivity may cause extreme fatigue and exhaustion.
The inflammation that gluten places on the gluten-sensitive individual can severely deplete available energy levels as the body struggles to deal with the response. This can leave someone feeling tired and sluggish even if they slept for 10+ hours the night before.
In fact, gluten sensitivity is also linked to depleted adrenal glands, another condition that can leave you feeling completely drained. (14) Even if your adrenal glands are in working order, the digestive issues caused by gluten can also lead to malabsorption, depriving your body of the essential nutrients it needs to function properly.
How to Know If You’re Allergic to Gluten
But how does one determine whether they are allergic to gluten or have some other sort of sensitivity? One easy way, as we’ve already mentioned, is to completely eliminate gluten from your diet. As in 100% elimination. Go a week or more completely gluten-free; then, gradually re-introduce gluten and note how your body responds.
There are also a variety of medical tests that can be performed to test for gluten intolerance. There are several blood tests that will check for gluten antibodies, such as IgA anti-gliadin antibodies. These are found in about 80% of individuals who have celiac disease. (15)
Genetic testing may also be performed, as well as intestinal biopsies. If you do have some sort of gluten sensitivity or full blown celiac disease, remember that the only effective treatment will be to switch to a completely, 100% gluten-free diet.
The Final Word
There are indeed people out there who can eat all the gluten they want with absolutely zero side effects. However, this is something akin to looking at somebody who smoked their whole life and never got lung cancer.
Even if they aren’t sensitive to gluten and experience no harmful symptoms, many people find themselves feeling noticeably better upon the removal of gluten from their diets.
It doesn’t hurt to just try the elimination diet for yourself. Take the challenge and detox from gluten for even just a week and see how your body responds. You might just be surprised with how you feel, and the improvements may help you decide to live a gluten-free life after all.