Thinking Of Going Gluten-Free? Here Are 7 Signs You May Be Gluten Intolerant + Exactly How To Treat It
Wondering if gluten could be to blame for your bloating, stomach issues, brain fog, and increasing headaches? You’re not alone. Eighteen million Americans may be sensitive to gluten, but it can be difficult to determine if you could be part of that statistic.
It’s a little tricky: just because you have an intolerance to gluten doesn’t mean you will end up being allergic to wheat or diagnosed with Celiac, and it’s possible to be allergic to wheat without being sensitive to gluten. That’s why it’s so important to talk to your doctor about your symptoms and do the appropriate testing to uncover what is causing your issues.
For now, here are seven symptoms of gluten intolerance (also referred to as gluten sensitivity) as well as how to test for it, and what to do if you are gluten intolerant.
7 signs you have a gluten intolerance.
Gluten intolerance can come in many forms, with the most serious resulting in a wheat allergy or Celiac disease. A wheat allergy is a type of immune response (also known as an IgE-mediated intolerance) triggered by ingesting products containing wheat proteins such as gluten. Celiac disease, on the other hand, is an autoimmune disorder that damages the villi in the small intestine.
That said, symptoms of gluten sensitivity (also known as an IgG-mediated intolerance) may not present immediately after consumption, rather an onset of symptoms often occur within 24 to 48 hours of ingesting gluten, says Abby Vichill, M.S., RDN, L.D. So, when it comes to investigating gluten as a cause of health issues, give yourself time to see if these symptoms arise:
Bloating generally refers to the feeling of the stomach being swollen or full of gas after you’ve eaten. Rocio Salas-Whalen, M.D., a board-certified endocrinologist at New York Endocrinology says bloating is one of the most common complaints she hears from patients who are sensitive or intolerant to gluten.
Digestion issues such as gas, diarrhea, and constipation may also point to gluten intolerance. If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms regularly after consuming gluten, Salas-Whalen says you should definitely take note.
“The majority of people who are gluten-sensitive regularly experience diarrhea, which can lead to larger issues like dehydration and fatigue,” she says. That said, one of the best things you can do is to be aware of how your body responds to certain foods.
Much like bloating, Salas-Whalen says stomach pain is one of the most common complaints she hears from patients.
“Although there can be a myriad of reasons for abdominal discomfort, you may have a negative reaction to gluten if you regularly experience this pain directly after consuming gluten without any other apparent causes,” she explains.
Headaches and brain fog.
Chronic headaches and the inability to think clearly (aka, brain fog) are also common side effects associated with gluten intolerance. Interestingly, migraines seem to be more common among people with Celiac disease, IBD, and gluten sensitivity1 than in the control group, according to a 2013 study in the journal Headache.
Dry skin, itchy rashes, an increase in symptoms related to eczema and psoriasis, and acne are all common skin issues that may occur if you are gluten intolerant. It makes sense, as research has shown that half of participants who suffer from acne also suffer from gut issues2.
Symptoms of anxiety and depression.
An increase in the symptoms associated with depression and anxiety3 were linked to eating gluten-containing foods, according to a 2014 study published in Alimentary & Pharmacology & Therapeutics. As we know, the gut-brain connection is very much real—an unhappy gut can lead to substantial changes in mood.
Inflammation and joint pain.
People with gluten intolerance or sensitivity often report an increase in joint pain. According to the Arthritis Foundation, many patients with rheumatoid arthritis notice a decrease in joint-related pain after going gluten-free.
Have some signs? Here’s how to test.
If the list of symptoms has you scratching your head and wondering if gluten could be to blame for your physical symptoms, it might be time to dig further and find out if ditching gluten could help you feel better.
If you suspect you are gluten intolerant, Salas-Whalen says it’s important to rule out more serious conditions such as Celiac disease or a wheat allergy. “Celiac can be diagnosed with a blood test, but the gold standard for testing involves taking a biopsy of the villi from the small bowel,” she says. The only caveat is that you have to eat a whole lot of gluten prior to the biopsy to get accurate test results, otherwise you run the risk of getting a false negative.
If the case results for Celiac come back negative, she recommends consulting with your doctor about temporarily removing gluten from your diet to see if it relieves symptoms (aka, an elimination diet).
“Since it can be difficult to confirm whether gluten intolerance is the underlying issue (there is no test for this), focusing on an elimination diet that relies on trial and error to identify specific allergies and intolerances is your best bet,” adds Salas-Whalen.
One of the cheapest and simplistic ways to self-test for a gluten intolerance or sensitivity, says Vichill, involves keeping a food journal to track symptoms. Begin by documenting how you feel after eating gluten-containing foods. After a few days, go back and compare your symptoms with the list of signs noted above. This is also helpful information for your doctor or registered dietician if they plan on putting you on an elimination diet.
Food sensitivity testing is another option to explore, says Vichill. While this type of testing should not be used exclusively without clinical symptoms, she does say that it might shed light on potential antigenic or "intolerant" foods that a person may be reacting to.
So you’re gluten intolerant. What now?
Once you confirm a sensitivity to gluten, the first step is to eliminate all gluten-containing products from your diet. You can find gluten in foods that contain wheat (all varieties and derivatives), rye, barley, triticale, malt, and brewer’s yeast.
Here’s a list of popular foods that contain gluten:
- Bread, pasta, cakes, cookies, and muffins
- Breakfast cereals
- Cracker meal
- Farina, semolina, and spelt
- Hydrolyzed vegetable protein
- Sprouted wheat
- Wheat (bran, durum, germ, gluten, malt, sprouts, starch), wheat bran hydrolysate, wheat germ oil, wheat protein isolate
- Batter-fried foods
- Snack foods such as potato chips, rice cakes, and crackers
- Salad dressings, soups, ketchup, soy sauce, and marinara sauce
- Processed meats and imitation crab meat
- Ice cream and candy
- Vegetable gum
In addition to food and beverages, gluten can also be found in the following products:
- Lipstick, lip gloss, and lip balm
- Nutritional supplements such as vitamins and herbs
- Drugs and over-the-counter medications
If possible, you can ease into removing gluten entirely by slowly reducing your consumption to get a better sense of how it makes your body feel. Keeping a food journal is helpful during this transition, so you can make note of the foods that trigger the most serious reactions.
Here’s some good news: Because of the response by grocers, restaurants, and food companies, there is now a wide variety of products and menu items to choose from that are gluten-free. And while it may take some trial and error to find what works (and tastes the best!) for you, it’s worth putting in the time, so you can start feeling better as soon as possible.
While many of the symptoms related to gluten intolerance are also linked to the other aforementioned health concerns, it’s important to get a specific screening for gluten sensitivity and possibly, further testing for Celiac disease before moving forward. You never know—going gluten-free can make all the difference.
Sara Lindberg, M.Ed., B.S., is a freelance journalist and contributing writer for mindbodygreen. She received her Bachelor's degree in Exercise Science from Central Washington University, and her Master's of Education in Counseling from City University of Seattle. Sara is both a mental health and fitness expert with over 20 years of experience in both fields, having written for Healthline, Insider, Verywell, LIVESTRONG, Men's Health, Bicycling Magazine, Runner's World, SheKnows, Yahoo Health, Greatist, and Headspace. She currently lives in Seattle, WA.