What are gluten intolerance symptoms? Are people with gluten intolerance just fussy eaters with a new excuse for their picky food habits?
Research shows that gluten sensitivity in some form, including celiac disease and mild gluten intolerance, affects approximately 15% of the US population. These statistics are likely to be similar in Western countries with similar health issues and dietary patterns. Are you one of these people? How do you recognize gluten intolerance symptoms?
First of all let’s identify the difference between celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Celiac disease is an immune reaction, a severe sudden onset allergic reaction, to the protein called gluten. This is commonly found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley and oats. While celiac disease is initially an auto-immune disorder, it is also a disease of malabsorption, because essential nutrients are not absorbed. Therefore one of the most devastating symptoms of long-term undiagnosed celiac disease is malnutrition.
Gluten intolerance often has a slower onset than celiac disease, and may be hard to diagnose due to the broad range of symptoms and causes.
If you imagine a continuum of gluten intolerance symptoms, celiac disease is usually at the most extreme end with immediate autoimmune reactions. Some people with celiac disease may not have symptoms, but internally malabsorption and malnutrition can erode health over many years. Both celiac disease and gluten intolerance can be exacerbated by emotional stress, infection, surgery, pregnancy and childbirth. Every individual with some level of gluten intolerance or allergy may experience different shades of symptoms, hence the challenge for medical practitioners to diagnose.
So what are the specific symptoms of gluten intolerance and
- Weight loss or weight gain
- Nutritional deficiencies due to malabsorption e.g. low iron levels
- Gastro-intestinal problems (bloating, pain, gas, constipation, diarrhea)
- Fat in the stools (due to poor digestion)
- Aching joints
- Head aches
- Irritability and behavioural changes
- Infertility, irregular menstrual cycle and miscarriage
- Cramps, tingling and numbness
- Slow infant and child growth
- Decline in dental health
Undiagnosed for long periods of time, food intolerances have been found to contribute to diabetes, bowel cancer, anemia and osteoporosis.
Why are gluten intolerance symptoms so varied?
It is still a bit of a mystery; gluten intolerance and allergies affect adults and children in a variety of ways, but we do know that the less stress the better.
Anecdotal evidence suggests emotional trauma and stress play a large role in worsening of symptoms. Some studies have shown that there is a lower chance of developing celiac disease, the longer a baby is breastfed; the later they started eating gluten containing foods and the less gluten containing foods they ate. However completely avoiding gluten through pregnancy and in a child’s younger years may also increase allergic reaction, as the developing digestive system does not recognize the substance at all. Perhaps a moderate approach is best when preventing celiac disease, especially if there is a genetic predisposition. Mother might reduce but not eliminate gluten foods when pregnant, breastfeed for a longer than average period, and introduce low gluten grains as first foods for baby.
How to diagnose celiac disease and gluten intolerance?
Until recently it was challenging to diagnose celiac disease because the symptoms are varied and similar to other diseases. For example, Crohn’s disease, chronic fatigue, iron deficiency, irritable bowel syndrome and intestinal infections can all have similar symptoms. In fact there may be a cross over between gluten intolerance and some of these illnesses; an individual may have a combination of issues worsened by unsuitable food choices.
Now doctors test for raised levels of certain auto-antibodies in their blood. These antibodies are produced when the body senses a dangerous intruder allergen, like gluten. If the results indicate an allergy to gluten the doctor may perform a small intestine biopsy. This will reveal the damage to the villi in the small intestine. It is important to eat an ordinary diet including gluten, before being tested.
Author: Anna Wilde
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