There has been lots of talk about gluten intolerance and a growing number of people who appear to be sensitive to foods containing wheat. I want to assure you that it is real, and not just another health trend. Wheat products, in North America especially, have changed dramatically in the past 100 years, where the wheat as we consume it is structurally and immunologically very different than it used to be. These changes have made it difficult for many people to digest, and it can lead to a whole spectrum of health issues.
In this article, we’re talking about a condition that has been labelled as “non-celiac gluten sensitivity” meaning we do not find the hallmark features of celiac disease, an autoimmune condition which is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. An estimated 5-13% (1, 2) of people may have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which is a milder condition in terms of digestive system damage, but it can affect many body systems.
The important thing to note, is that you may have a significant gluten intolerance without having any digestive symptoms. For many people, gluten-containing foods create inflammation which can affect many body systems. Here are a few of the more surprising signs that may point to gluten sensitivity:
1. BLOATING THAT’S HARD TO TRACK TO ANY ONE FOOD
The most common symptom that I see in practice, is persistent lower abdominal bloating that is hard to track to any one food. One study showed that 87% of people who had suspected non-celiac gluten sensitivity experienced bloating (3).
2. CHRONIC CONSTIPATION SINCE CHILDHOOD
Unlike celiac disease which is usually characterized by diarrhea, non-celiac gluten sensitivity is more often associated with long-term constipation that does not easily resolve with the usual dietary strategies of increasing fiber and water intake.
3. LOW VITAMIN B12 LEVELS
Poor absorption of nutrients is a classic hallmark of significant food intolerances. Gluten intolerance is especially associated with low vitamin B12 levels (under 200 pmol/L). Very low vitamin B12 levels can lead to fatigue, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, and difficulty focusing.
4. INTENSE CRAVINGS FOR BREAD, PASTA, PIZZA & PASTRIES
Many of us intensely crave foods that are inflammatory to our bodies. If you have intense and hard to manage food cravings for wheat-containing foods, this may be a sign of gluten sensitivity.
Endometriosis is an inflammatory condition that leads to painful menstruation and sometimes ovulation. In one study, 75% of women with diagnosed endometriosis reported a statistically significant change in painful symptoms after following a gluten-free diet for 12 months (4). This statistic is phenomenally high, so if you have suspected or diagnosed endometriosis, a gluten-free diet is certainly worth a try.
6. AUTOIMMUNE THYROID DISORDER
There is also association with both gluten sensitivity and celiac disease with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, the most common form of thyroid disorder. In many cases, a gluten-free diet can lead to a significant reduction in thyroid antibodies and inflammation. If you are in the earliest stage of Hashimoto’s, a gluten-free diet can be part of actually reversing thyroid damage. In more advanced cases, you can slowing disease progression and reduce hypothyroid symptoms.
7. FREQUENT CANKER SORES IN THE MOUTH
Frequent canker sores or mouth ulcers, also called apthous stomatitis is another indicator of potential gluten intolerance, and may be a reflection of upper digestive tract inflammation. If you are prone to mouth sores, more than occasionally, this is one of several possible causes.
8. MIGRAINE HEADACHES WITHOUT A CLEAR TRIGGER
Migraine headaches occur with a quite complicated mechanism, and there are some classic triggers like hormone swings around menstruation, weather changes, and food triggers such as alcohol, chocolate and cheese.
9. FEELING REALLY TIRED AFTER YOU EAT
10. HALLMARK SKIN SIGNS
Interestingly, there are several skin conditions that have been linked to gluten-intolerance or celiac disease. They include: dermatitis herpetiformis, psoriasis, alopecia areata and chronic urticarial (chronic hives) (9).
If you suspect that you may have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, there are several directions to take next. You could look into testing to get a clear diagnosis, especially if there is suspected celiac disease. The other option is changing your diet, and doing a 5 week STRICT gluten-free trial to see what changes in your health and energy occur over this time. If it’s not clear at the end of 5 weeks you can challenge gluten back into your diet to see if it provokes a reaction. If you have questions about what steps to take next, please ask!
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