Gluten-intolerance is an ailment that causes a patient to negatively react after consuming gluten (typically found in wheat, rye or barley). Symptoms vary, but can include gastrointestinal problems, fatigue, and joint pain.
About 15% of all Americans are gluten intolerant, but only five percent have been diagnosed and treated. Experts from the University of Chicago Medical Center state that a gluten-intolerant patient can typically suffer with symptoms for an average of 11 years before they identify it.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is a composite protein, which means that it contains other proteins as well. The main proteins that comprise gluten are glutenin and gliadin (in wheat), secalin (in rye), and hordein (in barley).Embracing a gluten-free lifestyle takes more than just removing bread or baked goods from your diet. Gluten is in more foods then many people realize—for example, a lot of sauces contain gluten.
Gluten Intolerance 101
Let’s separate gluten intolerance into three categories: celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy.
1. Celiac disease
This occurs when the proteins found in gluten trigger the immune system and cause it to overreact with strong unusual antibodies. The reaction that is caused by these antibodies wears down the villi that line the intestine walls. As this autoimmune response slowly flattens the villi, your body becomes less able to process nutrients from the food that it consumes. Celiac disease will also trigger inflammation of the intestinal wall. The combination of absorption and inflammation can contribute to serious health problems.
This disease is also linked to leaky gut syndrome, where undigested proteins and toxins become stuck in the wall of the small intestine they then move through the intestinal wall and into the bloodstream. As a result, dermatitis herpetiformis (a nasty gluten intolerance rash) can occur.
2. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS)
This type of gluten intolerance is hard to pinpoint. Those who are diagnosed with NCGS experience similar symptoms to celiac disease. However, when blood tests and biopsies are done to diagnose celiac disease, the tests are negative. Non-celiac gluten sensitive patients will also test negative for wheat allergy. The only way to diagnose NCGS is to test negative for wheat allergy and celiac disease while still eliciting the symptoms.
Recent research and statistics suggest that 10% to 15% of the American population may suffer from some form of intolerance to this protein complex, and a large majority of these people have not been properly diagnosed. For example, in 2010 some of the NCGS patients were excluded from a gluten-free diet because they tested negative for celiac disease and wheat allergy.
3. Wheat allergies
Wheat allergy is a negative response to wheat, much like a negative response some have to peanut butter and hay fever. Wheat allergies can manifest themselves in several ways. For example, some people may experience hives and others may experience stomach pains. The difference between wheat allergies and celiac disease is that people with celiac disease may not experience symptoms immediately. Those with wheat allergies experience problems immediately after they consume wheat.
Gluten Intolerance Symptoms
There are over 250 different types of documented symptoms of gluten sensitivity, and the reactions vary from person to person. The most common symptoms include:
- Digestive issues: This includes gas, bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. Constipation will more likely occur in children after consuming gluten.
- Keratosis pilaris: You will typically see small, hard bumps on the arms and thighs. This is the result from fatty acid deficiency and vitamin A deficiency, usually caused by gluten damage to the gut.
- Fatigue: This is characterized by brain fog or extreme exhaustion after eating a meal that contains gluten.
- Neurologic symptoms: Dizziness or the feeling of being off balance may occur after consuming gluten.
- Hormone imbalance: PMS or an unexplained fertility imbalance can occur in women who are gluten-intolerant.
- Chronic fatigue or fibromyalgia: This disorder is classified by musculoskeletal pain, lethargy, and tenderness.
- Inflammation: Swelling or pain in the joints, fingers, knees, and hips.
- Mood issues: These include anxiety, depression, mood swings, or Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD).
- Dental issues: Reoccurring canker sores, sore teeth, and tooth decay can be early symptoms of gluten intolerance.
- Weight loss or weight gain: Sudden weight loss or weight gain, despite following the same diet and eating patterns, can be a sign of gluten intolerance.
Other symptoms of gluten intolerance include abdominal distention, abdominal pain and cramping, arthritis, back pain, bone density loss, brittle nails, dry hair, diabetes, diarrhea, joint pain, nausea, vomiting, osteoporosis, hair loss, hypoglycemia, and edema.
Treatment for Gluten Intolerance
The easiest way to treat gluten intolerance is through a proper gluten-free diet. Make sure it includes:
- Healthy fats: Extra virgin olive oil, sesame oil, coconut oil, almond milk, avocados, coconuts, and seeds
- Protein: Whole eggs, wild fish, shellfish, shrimp, crab, lobster, poultry, pork, liver, bison, chicken, turkey, and duck
- Vegetables: Lettuce, kale, spinach, celery, mushrooms, broccoli, onions, chard, cabbage, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts
- Herbs, seasonings, and condiments: This includes mustard, horseradish, tapenade, and salsa—as long as it is gluten-free
The following foods can be used in moderation:
- Non-gluten grains: This includes buckwheat, rice (brown, white, and wild), millet, quinoa, and sorghum. Oats are frequently contaminated with gluten because they are processed in mills that handle wheat. It’s best to avoid them, unless you can guarantee they are gluten-free.
- Legumes: Consume small amounts of beans, lentils, and peas. You could use hummus as a substitute, which is made from chickpeas.
- Whole sweet fruit: Berries are best.
- Cow’s milk and cream: Use mildly in coffee and tea.
- Cottage cheese, yogurt, and kefir: Use mildly in recipes and as a topping only.
- Sweeteners: Choose dark chocolate that contains at least 70% or more of cocoa.
- Wine: Limit your wine consumption to one glass a day, preferably red.
Can Adults Develop Food Allergies?
Adults who are experiencing joint pain, anemia, infertility, or osteoporosis should consider the possibility that they are gluten-intolerant. The majority of people who are gluten-intolerant are either misdiagnosed or have not been diagnosed at all. It’s essential to make note of symptoms that begin to surface and to contact your doctor immediately.
Once you have been properly diagnosed, contact a nutritionist or a dietitian to help you schedule a beneficial gluten-free diet plan.
“Gluten Intolerance Symptoms,” Gluten Intolerance School web site, http://glutenintoleranceschool.com/gluten-intolerance-symptoms/#1, last accessed July 27, 2015.
“Gluten Free Food List,” DrPerlmutter.com, http://www.drperlmutter.com/eat/list-of-gluten-free-foods/, last accessed July 27, 2015.
Trentini, D., “12 Shocking Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity,” Hypothyroidmom.com, October 12, 2014; http://hypothyroidmom.com/12-shocking-symptoms-of-gluten-sensitivity/.