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Gluten Intolerance: What is It and How Does it Affect People?

  • 6 min read

by Matt Weik, BS, CSCS, CPT, CSN

If you’re like me, you probably know someone who seemingly can’t seem to eat gluten-containing foods. Some of these individuals get minor symptoms, while others can have some pretty severe symptoms. All of this stems from gluten intolerance.

Some people feel like there is no such thing as gluten intolerance, but the research tends to lean towards this is a real concern for many people.

A gluten intolerance, also known as gluten sensitivity or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is a condition that affects a significant number of individuals worldwide. It is characterized by an adverse reaction to gluten, a protein composite found in wheat, barley, rye, and other related grains. This condition differs from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder triggered by gluten ingestion, as it does not cause the same level of damage to the small intestine.

In this article, we will dive deeper into gluten intolerance, how it affects people, what causes it, and how to manage and avoid it.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only and is not meant to treat or diagnose any condition. It is recommended that you speak with your doctor if you feel you may have a gluten intolerance.

What is Gluten Intolerance?

Gluten intolerance is a condition where individuals experience a range of symptoms after consuming gluten-containing foods. These symptoms can vary in severity and may include digestive issues such as bloating, abdominal pain, diarrhea, or constipation. Other symptoms can extend beyond the gastrointestinal tract and manifest as fatigue, headaches, brain fog, joint pain, skin problems, and mood disturbances. These symptoms typically appear within hours or days after gluten consumption.

It should be noted that many people who have a gluten intolerance assume they have celiac disease. This is not always the case, but only going to see your doctor and getting properly tested will prove whether or not you have a gluten intolerance or something more severe like celiac disease.

How Does Gluten Intolerance Affect People?

When individuals with gluten intolerance consume gluten, their immune system recognizes the protein as a threat and launches an immune response. This immune reaction leads to inflammation and can cause damage to the intestinal lining, although to a lesser extent than in individuals with celiac disease. The precise mechanisms behind gluten intolerance are still not fully understood, and further research is needed to elucidate the underlying processes.

Below are some of the common symptoms those with a gluten intolerance may experience:

Digestive issues: Bloating, abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, and/or constipation.

Fatigue: Persistent feelings of tiredness, lack of energy, and sluggishness.

Headaches: Recurrent headaches or migraines.

Brain fog: Difficulty concentrating, memory problems, and a general feeling of mental cloudiness.

Joint and muscle pain: Aches, stiffness, and inflammation in the joints and muscles.

Skin problems: Itchy skin, rashes, eczema, or dermatitis herpetiformis (a specific gluten-related skin condition).

Mood disturbances: Irritability, depression, anxiety, and mood swings.

Numbness or tingling: Sensations of numbness or tingling in the extremities, such as the hands and feet.

Hormonal imbalances: Irregular menstrual cycles, infertility, and premenstrual syndrome (PMS) symptoms.

Weight changes: Unexplained weight loss or weight gain.

Dental issues: Tooth enamel erosion, canker sores, or mouth ulcers.

Nutrient deficiencies: Malabsorption of essential vitamins and minerals, leading to deficiencies (e.g., iron, vitamin D, B vitamins).

Autoimmune disorders: An increased risk of developing other autoimmune conditions, such as Hashimoto’s thyroiditis or rheumatoid arthritis.

Respiratory problems: Nasal congestion, sinusitis, or asthma-like symptoms.

Inflammation: Systemic inflammation, which can manifest as swollen joints, redness, or general inflammation throughout the body.

What Causes Gluten Intolerance?

The exact causes of gluten intolerance remain unclear, but several factors are believed to contribute to its development. Genetics is thought to play a role, as individuals with a family history of gluten intolerance or celiac disease are at a higher risk. It is also possible that alterations in the gut microbiome, the complex community of microorganisms residing in the digestive tract, could influence the body’s response to gluten.

Additionally, some researchers speculate that an increase in gluten consumption in modern diets, changes in food processing techniques, and the hybridization of wheat varieties may have contributed to the rise in gluten-related disorders.

More research is required to establish a definitive link between these factors and gluten intolerance.

How to Manage and Avoid Gluten Intolerance

If you suspect you have gluten intolerance, it is crucial that you go see your doctor for an accurate diagnosis. Do not use “Google MD,” as I like to call it, where you search for all of your symptoms, and just about every symptom you list leads you to an online cancer diagnosis. You could prick your finger, and Google will tell you it could be some rare disease that you now panic over for no reason.

Your doctor can perform tests to rule out other conditions and may recommend an elimination diet or a gluten challenge to confirm if you have a gluten intolerance or something else.

The primary treatment for gluten intolerance is quite simple — a gluten-free diet.

A gluten-free diet avoids all foods containing wheat, barley, rye, and related grains. Fortunately, numerous gluten-free alternatives are available on the market today, such as gluten-free grains (e.g., rice, quinoa, corn), legumes, nuts, seeds, and a variety of gluten-free flours and other products.

When following a gluten-free diet, it is crucial to read food labels carefully, as gluten can hide in unexpected places, such as sauces, dressings, processed meats, and even medications. Cross-contamination is another concern, as even small traces of gluten can trigger symptoms, especially for those who have a severe gluten intolerance. Therefore, it is important to maintain a gluten-free kitchen, use separate utensils and cooking surfaces, and be cautious when dining out or traveling where you are not making your own meals.

In some cases, individuals with gluten intolerance may benefit from working with a registered dietitian or nutritionist who specializes in gluten-related disorders. They can provide guidance on meal planning, label reading, and navigating social situations while adhering to a gluten-free lifestyle.