Many people think of digestive symptoms when they think of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, but the reality is that gluten intolerance symptoms can be different for everyone, and can have impacts far beyond the digestive system. Nothing in the body works in isolation, so gluten-induced gut inflammation can impact just about every system in the body.
Below is a summary of the many different symptoms that can arise as a result of celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important to take them seriously. If they are related to gluten intolerance and not addressed, they could potentially cause long-term damage. If they are not related to gluten intolerance, we encourage you to dig deeper and find the root cause. Modern medicine tends to treat the smoke (the symptoms), not the fire (the cause). Think of symptoms as a sign or signal that something in the body must be addressed.
The 11 Most Common Gluten Intolerance Symptoms
- Constipation and/or Diarrhea
Constipation and diarrhea are often labeled as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), which results in many people suffering from these symptoms feeling as though they reached a diagnosis that they cannot treat. The reality is that these symptoms are quite common in those with celiac disease.
Similarly, Inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) is a broad term used to describe a variety of conditions that causechronic inflammation in the digestive tract. Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis (UC) are commonly included under the IBD umbrella. But they’re not the only inflammatory bowel diseases, celiac disease also causes chronic gut inflammation.
It is important to get to the root of these other diagnoses so that you don’t overlook gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.
- Bloating/Abdominal Pain
Bloating can cause abnormal swelling of the abdomen. This results in the feeling of a full or tight abdomen and is often accompanied by abdominal discomfort and pain. When people have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, their inability to digest gluten properly can cause gas to build up in the digestive system which can cause feelings of discomfort. A gluten free diet can help alleviate these symptoms.
Research has shown that headaches are more common in those with celiac disease. A recent meta-analysis looked at 40 scientific studies published since 1987 that discussed the connection between headaches and celiac disease. From the data, they determined that the prevalence of headache (mostly migraines) among those with celiac disease was 26% for adults and 18.3% for children. However, the prevalence of migraines among the general population including both adults and children is only 12%. Thus, these numbers suggest that migraines affect those with celiac disease more frequently than those without.
In another study, researchers found that those with celiac disease were 4 times more likely to experience migraine headaches than a control group. And while migraines didn’t last as long as the control group, they occurred 2.5 times more frequently than those without celiac disease. When put on a gluten-free diet, migraines disappeared in 25% of the celiac patients. And 38% experienced a reduction in severity and frequency of their headaches.
So why does this happen? In some cases, migraines can be caused by the build-up of calcium in the brain known as cerebral calcification. And a folate deficiency is believed to contribute to this condition. Interestingly, folate deficiencies are common among those with gluten sensitivity due to gut inflammation and subsequent malabsorption.
Fatigue is a common symptom of celiac disease, but in today’s overscheduled world, many people dismiss fatigue as their normal state of being.
The cause of fatigue in those with unmanaged celiac disease is typically due to the nutrient deficiencies caused by malabsorption. A damaged gut is not able to properly absorb nutrients, particularly those that help support energy and metabolism:
- Iron – leads to anemia meaning that the body is not getting necessary oxygen through the bloodstream
- B Vitamins – needed to produce energy by breaking down carbs and fat
- Magnesium – needed to break down food into energy
- Zinc – used in the production of insulin to break down sugar
- Chromium – used for insulin receptor production leading to the breakdown of sugar
- Skin Problems
An imbalance microbiome and nutrient malabsorption can also lead to skin problems. Gluten causes the immune system to overreact, which leads to inflammation in the gut and throughout the body – including the skin. Celiac disease has been associated with a number of skin conditions, including Dermatitis herpetiformis, urticaria (hives), psoriasis, eczema, and rosacea. It may even help support acne.
Symptoms of celiac disease are not just physical, they can be emotional too. Research has tied gluten to leaky brain, which can lead to feelings of depression. If the concept of leaky brain is new to you, know that it is similar to leaky gut, which is a breakdown in the intestinal barrier. Leaky brain results when there is a breakdown in the blood brain barrier which leads to an inflammatory response.
- Joint & Muscle Pain
Like fatigue, many people believe (or are told by providers) that muscle and joint pain are just a normal part of the aging process, or that it is the result of overuse from movement. However, the research is clear that there are strong connections between gluten and many forms of autoimmune arthritis.
- Brain Fog
Brain fog is a term used to describe a collection of symptoms that affect your ability to think clearly. There are a number of suspected contributors to the symptoms of brain fog, but one of the contributors is gluten consumption. A growing body of research has made this connection, so it is worth exploring this symptom further to understand if gluten may be contributing to your cognitive function.
- Autoimmune Disorders
- Unexplained Weight Loss/Gain
Both weight loss and weight gain can be associated with celiac disease. Weight loss can occur as a result of not properly absorbing nutrients due to damage in the intestines. Weight gain can occur due to leaky gut that results from intestinal damage.
Research has shown that adopting a gluten free diet can help overweight celiac or gluten sensitive patients lose weight and can also help underweight patients gain weight.
- Leg or Arm Numbness
Research has shown that gluten sensitivity may be linked to idiopathic axonal neuropathies, which may present as numbness in the arms or legs.
How does gluten cause all of these symptoms?
Gluten elicits immune responses that can lead to tissue damage and inflammation. Traditionally, it was thought that gluten induced damage was limited to the intestines, but doctors and scientists now know that gluten can affect any tissue in the body. Add to this that gluten induced intestinal damage leads to malabsorption and malnutrition. Nutritional deficiencies are another reason why those with gluten sensitivity can develop a wide array of health issues. For example, mineral deficiencies can contribute to bone loss, iron deficiency to anemia, vitamin B12 deficiency to anxiety, depression, neuropathy, and fatigue. There are numerous connections between nutritional deficiencies and disease development.
Testing for a Gluten Sensitivity
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you may want to get tested to confirm your suspicion. Below are the different types of tests for celiac disease and gluten sensitivity:
- Genetic Testing: Genetic testing is a highly accurate look at your genes to understand whether you have a genetic predisposition to reacting to gluten. Learn more about genetic testing here, as well as the limitations of other testing.
- Blood Testing: A blood test is available that checks for certain antibodies. People with celiac disease who eat gluten produce antibodies in their blood because their immune systems view gluten as a threat. It is important to note that you must be on a gluten-containing diet for antibody blood testing to be accurate. It is also important to note that these types of tests can also be misleading, as they can come back falsely negative 10-15% of the time.
- Endoscopy: An endoscopy is when a tube is inserted down your throat so that a practitioner can look at your small intestine for inflammation or damage. They may also take a small biopsy of your intestines. Like blood testing, you must be eating a diet that contains gluten for this test to be accurate. This type of testing is accurate when positive, but missed diagnosis is common. A biopsy finding villous atrophy can also be misleading because other things can cause atrophy beyond gluten, such as parasites, glyphosate, non steroidal anti inflammatories (NSAIDS), proton pump inhibitors (PPIs) used traditionally for heartburn, selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) used for depression and mood disorders, Angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) used for high blood pressure, heart failure, kidney disease and other conditions, and also vitamin and mineral deficiencies.
The bottom line
Symptoms of gluten intolerance and celiac disease look different for everyone. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms listed above, we encourage you to get tested and explore a gluten free diet and lifestyle. Gluten Free Society is here to arm you with information and resources to guide your journey.