If you have gone to a grocery store lately, I’m sure you have seen the increase in items labeled “Gluten Free”. Gluten free cereals, chips, breakfast foods, canned goods, and even dairy products are proudly wearing a Gluten free label. Being a nutrition and exercise blogger, I had a surface level knowledge of gluten, but it was never important to me.
Then one day, gluten became extremely important to me. That was the day I was in the doctor’s office trying to talk him out of sending me to the hospital for dehydration. For months, I had some symptoms that had gradually increased in severity until I was no longer absorbing vitamins and nutrients from food. Because I kept a very detailed food diary in a good old fashioned notebook, my doctor looked at my last few weeks and instructed me to start an immediate elimination diet and the only thing I had to eliminate was gluten. I spent the next 4 days eating the modified BRA(t) diet of bananas, rice, applesauce and TEA..no toast or bread. Five days later, I felt like I had my life back. It was that simple. A few weeks later, blood tests confirmed I was now absorbing nutrients and vitamins again. My doctor diagnosed me with Celiac disease after more blood tests and after several instances of cross contamination caused severe reactions.
The severity of this story could have been avoided if I knew the surprising symptoms from gluten intolerance. Before I discuss those, let’s get a working definition of gluten. In the simplest definition, gluten is a protein found in primarily wheat, barley, and rye. Many people are having serious side effects from eating it. The following symptoms are best viewed as one big picture. Alone, they may not be strong indicators of a gluten problem. A combination of them may be a neon sign that gluten is causing the body to attack itself.
1. Gastrointestinal effects.
Because my stomach symptoms started out very gradually and because they coincided with an extremely stressful work situation, I attributed those symptoms to stress and assumed they would work themselves out when school let out for the summer. Instead, they got worse. Symptoms such as intense bloating, diarrhea, constipation, are sure signs of gluten intolerance.
2. Malabsorption of vitamins
If a person is gluten sensitive or intolerant, the stomach lining can no longer absorb essential nutrients from food. Low iron is a common indicator of gluten intolerance.
3. Skin rash
Keratosis pilaris and Dermatitis herpetiformis are two skin conditions with direct connections to gluten exposure. Both of these are extremely itchy skin rashes on arms, torso, face, buttocks, elbows, and hairline. Other skin irritations that mimic Eczema might signal a gluten contamination.
Headaches are symptoms of so many medical problems. Migraines combined with daily diarrhea, low iron count, and a skin rash paints a different picture. Migraines that start within an hour or two after ingesting food containing gluten are highly indicative of a gluten sensitivity.
5. Joint pain
Gluten contamination causes an inflammatory response in the body. That inflammation will make itself known in various ways. Joint pain, often misdiagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, is a very common symptom of gluten intolerance. This is the symptom that surprised me the most. After I eliminated the gluten, I was shocked at how much joint pain I had been having. When it resurfaced within hours of a gluten contamination, it was almost unbearable.
6. Lactose intolerance
If you already have problems digesting foods containing lactose, chances are you’re having problems with gluten. Gluten destroys the stomach lining. That stomach lining contains lactase, the enzyme necessary for digesting lactose. If gluten has compromised the stomach lining and lactase, you will have symptoms aligned with lactose intolerance. If you are already lactose intolerant and you have other symptoms on this list, you might want to begin eliminating gluten.
7. Chronic fatigue
Like migraines, chronic fatigue alone is not a strong indicator of gluten intolerance. Combined with gastrointestinal problems, especially frequent diarrhea, chronic fatigue is much clearer symptom. If the body is not absorbing nutrients and essential vitamins, fatigue is sure to take over.
Some in the medical field believe Fibromyalgia is a symptom, not a disease. Inflammation of the connective tissue is one of the strongest symptoms of a gluten intolerance. Basically, the body thinks the gluten is an enemy and will send out antibodies to destroy it. Those antibodies destroy the lining of the stomach and intestines. Just like with joint pain, the inflammation will present itself in any part of the body. If you have been told you have Fibromyalgia, try eliminating gluten for a while.
In today’s world of the rat race, stress is so often cited as the cause for these symptoms. Instead of anti-depressants, sleeping aids, or anti-anxiety meds (some of which contain….gluten), take a good look at what you are eating.
In future posts, I will dive deeper into the reasons behind increases in gluten problems; fad, fantasy, or reality; specifics about Celiac disease including heredity; elimination/reintroduction diets; and how to manage living in the free world without being contaminated with gluten. Hint: It’s EVERYWHERE!