You may have seen the gluten-free stamp on more foods in the store as society is becoming more aware of celiac disease and gluten intolerances. If you are just starting your research on the effect of consuming gluten, it can be confusing and hard to pinpoint whether the symptoms that you have are due to gluten intolerance or something else entirely. The indicators are different from person to person, and most symptoms are similar to symptoms for other issues as well. Despite common belief, whether you have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, gluten does not strictly attack the GI tract. Gluten can attack the neurological system, musculoskeletal system, and the skin as well as the digestive system.
What Is Gluten?
Simply put, gluten is a protein that is found mainly in wheat, rye, and barley. It can be found in other grains as well. Since gluten is in wheat, foods made with flour like bread, pastries, cakes, bagels, flour tortillas, pasta, some cereal, and crackers contain gluten. Since it is made from barley, gluten is also found in beer.
Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Sensitivity
Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity or intolerance are not the same things. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder caused by an abnormal gene. Consumption of gluten triggers antibodies in the body to attack the digestion tract, causing pain, inflammation, and a list of other symptoms. Celiac disease is diagnosable by running a blood test.
If you are gluten intolerant, your body does not contain the abnormal gene or the antibodies to cause the attack on your digestive system, but your symptoms may still be very similar to someone with celiac disease. The exact cause behind the sensitivity is still being researched with a few theories in the works. There is no test to confirm gluten intolerance. Instead, your doctor will adjust your diet to be gluten-free for a few weeks to see if your symptoms disappear, then slowly start reintroducing certain gluten foods back into your diet and monitor how your body reacts.
If you are gluten intolerant, symptoms will last anywhere from a few hours to a few days after consuming gluten, depending on your level of sensitivity. Symptoms vary greatly from person to person, dependent on what part of your body is most affected. These are some of the most common symptoms seen.
If your reaction is more focused around the digestive system, like celiac disease, you may experience bloating, stomach pain, nausea and/or vomiting, and constipation or diarrhea. In some cases, there is even a connection between the consumption of gluten and acid reflux. If your nervous system is affected, you may experience brain fog, memory loss, difficulty remembering words, fatigue, or headaches. If your musculoskeletal system is affected, you may have muscle spasms or joint pain. In some cases, your reaction may manifest itself in the form of a skin rash like eczema or psoriasis.
What Do I Do?
Since researchers cannot decipher what the root cause of the sensitivity is, there is no cure for gluten intolerance. If your doctor concludes that you may be affected by gluten, the best advice for now is to avoid foods that contain gluten. If your symptoms are more concentrated in your digestive system, your doctor may suggest a probiotic. If your pain is more severe, you may be prescribed pain medication like opioids, NSAIDs, or steroids, but most likely your best bet is to change your diet and lead a gluten-free lifestyle. Never forget that the more medication you consume, the more likely you will develop side effects from the medication and mistake them for symptoms of your sensitivity.
Researchers are working to discover more about gluten and the effects of grain consumption on the human body. Symptoms can manifest in each person in dramatically different ways. If you are suspected of having a sensitivity to gluten, you can expect your doctor to remove grain-related foods completely from your diet. But do not fear! Although such a diet change will be demanding, nowadays there are plenty of gluten-free alternatives to some of your favorite foods.