A gluten-free diet is more than just a “fad” for weight loss. For many, gluten causes chronic symptoms ranging from digestive distress to headaches to joint pain. Gluten intolerance is a fairly common issue with varying levels of severity. Celiac disease is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. It is an autoimmune disorder that causes a flattening of cells lining the small intestine, leading to malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies, and various health issues.
Gluten intolerance, or Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity, can be harder to pinpoint because it is still not well defined. It can sometimes be detected by a food sensitivity panel, but the immune system can react in various ways that we can’t effectively test for. The best way to determine if you have an intolerance or sensitivity to gluten is to follow a gluten-free diet and see if symptoms improve. Reactions to gluten may or may not be digestive, and the following may be signs of underlying gluten intolerance:
1. You experience frequent digestive issues. If you have constant gas, bloating, constipation, or diarrhea, you may be sensitive to gluten. Gluten is a sticky protein, making it ideal for baking and binding foods. Unfortunately, it can also get “stuck” in the digestive tract, creating inflammation and unpleasant symptoms.
2. You notice increasing reactions to different foods. Gluten activates a protein called zonulin. Zonulin signals cells in your small intestine to separate, allowing undigested food into the blood. Your immune system doesn’t recognize undigested food, and flags these large proteins as “invaders.” This immune response leads to future attacks each time you eat the offending food and increases the risk of developing other food sensitivities.
3. You experience frequent “brain fog” or headaches after meals. The zonulin protein has a similar effect on the barrier protecting your brain. When the blood-brain barrier is compromised, toxins and other damaging molecules can enter the brain, triggering headaches, fatigue, and difficulty concentrating.
4. You experience chronic joint pain. Gluten causes a systemic inflammatory response in sensitive individuals. Inflammatory compounds eventually settle in joints, resulting in pain and swelling in the hands, knees, elbows, neck, or back.
5. You suffer from unexplained skin rashes. Dermatitis herpeteformis is a red, itchy rash that appears in individuals with Celiac Disease. Keratosis pilaris is a collection of small, hard bumps (often on the backs of arms) caused by malabsorption of fat and other nutrients in gluten-sensitive people.
6. Your energy is always low. Hidden gluten sensitivity can damage the small intestine, resulting in poor digestion and absorption of foods. Iron and other nutrients are essential for energy production, and deficiencies can result in low energy levels. There are various labs that test for gluten sensitivity or intolerance. The easiest (and most cost-effective) test is an elimination-provocation challenge. Simply eliminate gluten from your diet for one month, then add it back in and evaluate symptoms. If you notice brain fog, fatigue, GI symptoms, or even mood swings, you may want to limit or eliminate gluten from your diet permanently.