There’s been a lot of talk on the issues of gluten and its relation to health. This has led to a growing interest in its effects on the body and its role in disease.
But there’s much more to gluten than meets the eye. Understanding what gluten is and the signs that you may be gluten intolerant are the first steps in determining how to support your health without depriving you of the foods you enjoy.
What is Gluten?
Gluten is found in foods that contain wheat, barley, and rye. The term “gluten” represents a category of prolamins, which are protein fractions that naturally occur in grains. Most of the issues related to gluten are related to its effects on the digestive system. In some people, gluten causes inflammation of the small intestine. This affects the lining of the intestine as the villi become flattened.
The villi provides the surface area needed for the proper absorption during digestion. When they become altered from inflammation, the surface area decreases and makes it harder to absorb the nutrients in food. This can also contribute to digestive issues such as leaky gut syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Understanding Gluten Intolerance
There’s a difference between being intolerant to something and simply having a sensitivity to it. This influences what approaches you should take when trying to improve your health. Everyone’s different, and there are different levels of sensitivity when it comes to gluten. At the most basic level, food sensitivity occurs when you have a reaction without a known cause.
Just to be clear, I’ve outlined the three different gluten concepts:
Celiac disease: This is a common autoimmune disease that affects the small intestine causing it to become inflamed when gluten is digested. Gluten triggers an abnormal response in the immune system that results in the production of Immunoglobulin E (IgE) antibodies which attacks its own intestinal tissue. IgE is critical to the inflammatory response of the body. Over time, chronic inflammation is what harms the villi that lines the small intestine, causing malabsorption of nutrients and thus malnutrition. In more severe cases, individuals with Celiac disease experience issues related to the hormonal, nervous, musculoskeletal, and circulatory systems.
Non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance: Gluten sensitivity differs from celiac disease in that the body views gluten as an invader causing a direct response in the form of inflammation inside and outside of the digestive tract. However, with gluten sensitivity one’s own tissue (lining of small intestine) is not attacked, as we see with celiac disease. Gluten sensitivity as opposed to gluten allergies, indicates long-term effects that occur after eating gluten. Intolerances can arise for a number of reasons including stress, poor diet, and genetics.
Gluten Allergy: This is normally also related to wheat, as wheat also contains gluten. Gluten allergy produces immediate effects - as soon as one ingests gluten - which can result in rashes, heart palpitation etc. The response is quite significant and usually appears almost immediately. Whereas gluten intolerance may take days or weeks to appear once it hits the threshold, so it’s much harder to trace.
The following are 4 signs that you could be gluten intolerant:
Gastrointestinal (GI) Issues
If you’re gluten intolerant, chances are you’ve experienced your fair share of constipation, bloating, and even diarrhea. These are common symptoms of gluten intolerance and should be addressed as soon as possible. Constant bloating and discomfort can also indicate an intolerance to gluten. Other GI issues such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) can cause the similar issues.
Gluten intolerance doesn’t just affect the GI system. It can also lead to chronic pain of the muscles and joints. Recurring headaches can be a direct result of an intolerance to gluten. Removing gluten from the diet can alleviate these pain issues. The inflammatory response in gluten intolerance is one of the primary components in chronic pain issues such as arthritis. Reducing inflammation by eliminating gluten and eating a non-inflammatory diet decreases the pain experienced by those who are gluten intolerant. Fibromyalgia has also been linked to gluten intolerance and the inflammation that affects the tissues of the GI tract, joints, and other parts of the body.
When issues related to chronic fatigue occur alongside digestive issues, they may be linked to gluten intolerance. Fatigue occurs when the body is unable to properly digest and absorb nutrients from foods. Individuals with Celiac disease often display signs of anemia, which can contribute to issues related to energy production and fatigue. Fatigue can interfere with daily living. If you think your fatigue may be related to gluten, you should address it as soon as possible to determine the best healing strategies for your needs.
Skin problems have been linked to gluten intolerance. Dermatitis herpetiformis is characterised by the appearance of blisters on the skin. The immune response that’s triggered by gluten causes IgA to be placed underneath the skin. Dermatitis herpetiformis can be alleviated through a gluten-free diet. However, it may require a few years of gluten-free living before the lesions of the skin disappear. Medications are often used alongside a gluten-free diet to reduce itching or discomfort.
What to Do
If you’ve experienced any of these four signs that you may be gluten intolerant, you should consider the possible treatment methods that are available. This might require eliminating gluten completely for a period of time or indefinitely. Eliminating gluten can be tough since it exists in many “non-grain” foods. Gluten is used in food processing and can appear in a wide range of foods products.
There are blood tests that help you determine if you’re intolerant to gluten. But you can also test yourself by eliminating food that contain gluten such as pizza, bread, milo, tomato sauce, noodles, etc for at least 2 weeks and seeing if you experience any changes in symptoms. Instead replace it with food such as fruits, vegetables, brown rice, quinoa, fish, etc. Removing gluten allows the GI system to heal over time, which improves your ability to digest and absorb nutrients. You can help this healing process by taking probiotics or by eating more fermented food. You may be able to re-introduce gluten into the diet depending on your level of intolerance.
Understanding gluten intolerance helps you determine the best ways to overcome existing health issues. There are many levels of gluten sensitivity that you can have. So you need to remember that everyone is different in how they respond to gluten-containing foods. Removing gluten helps eliminate symptoms related to GI dysfunction, chronic pain, fatigue, and skin issues. It may seem like a small step to take, but over time it can enhance your health, vitality, and quality of living for years to come.