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What are the Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity?
Updated on September 21, 2023
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Diet / Weight Loss
What are the Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity?

Have you ever felt sick after eating pasta, bread, beer, cereal, or other common foods? If so, you may have a gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance.

Gluten is a protein found not in meats but in wheat and other grain-based foods.

Some of the most common symptoms can range from bloatedness to vomiting, among other kinds of digestive discomfort.

Read more to find out if you might have a gluten intolerance.

What Are the Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?

There are several gluten sensitivity symptoms to look out for. Some of the most common ones are:

  • Digestive discomfort (like nausea, diarrhea, bloating)
  • Hives
  • Headaches
  • Sneezing
  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog

These symptoms can vary in severity, so be mindful of how you feel after a meal.

What are the First Signs of Being Gluten Intolerant?

Gluten sensitivity has several common symptoms. Some of these symptoms are almost immediately noticeable after meals that include gluten containing foods

These symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Fatigue
  • Joint and muscle pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting

These are symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) which occur frequently with gluten sensitivity.

If you are instead experiencing skin symptoms such as itchy bumps and blisters from eating gluten, you may have dermatitis herpetiformis. This is one way celiac disease can manifest.

Until gluten is ruled out as the trigger for these symptoms, these may also be symptoms of a different food allergy, such as a wheat allergy. A wheat allergy triggers an autoimmune response to proteins in wheat that may or may not be the gluten protein.7

Differences Between Gluten Sensitivity and Celiac Disease

When researching gluten-related symptoms, you may also read about a condition called “celiac disease.”

Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease can have overlapping digestive symptoms, but they are not the same. This is why gluten intolerance may also be called “non celiac gluten sensitivity”.1

Celiac disease or coeliac disease causes your body to treat gluten like a virus. It is an autoimmune disorder; gluten sensitivity is not.2 Most attempts to diagnose gluten sensitivity also aim to exclude celiac disease.

What Causes Gluten Sensitivity or Its Symptoms?

The exact cause of gluten sensitivity is still unknown.

In comparison, celiac disease and wheat allergies are better understood. They are overreactions of the body's immune system.

Research suggests that gluten sensitivity is linked to a wider range of proteins called ATIs that are prominently found in wheat.4

This hypothesizes that nonceliac gluten sensitivity is an abnormality in how one’s gut bacteria reacts to these proteins. This is what causes intestinal inflammation and the other symptoms of gluten sensitivity.

Research, however, is not yet conclusive. In the meantime, strategies to manage gluten related disorders have not changed.

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How Are Gluten Sensitivity and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity Diagnosed?

Gluten sensitivity can have gastrointestinal symptoms that overlap with other food allergies and autoimmune diseases. Among these is celiac disease.

Your doctor may employ a differential diagnosis to isolate that the symptoms are coming from gluten exposure rather than other triggers.

This is how differential diagnoses are carried out:

  1. First, your doctor might want to rule out celiac disease and wheat allergy. Without changing anything in your diet, doctors will check for skin rash, abnormal antibodies in your blood, and other signs of autoimmune disorders. This may involve blood tests.
  2. Second, you may be put on a diet of strictly gluten-free foods. This gluten-free diet will mean cutting out bread, beer, pasta, cereals, pastries, and some vegan meat alternatives.

Gluten avoidance can help confirm if your symptoms are being caused by eating gluten. If your symptoms lessen under a gluten-free diet, you may have gluten sensitivity.

Your doctor may double-check this by allowing you to eat gluten again to see if the symptoms return. This process of elimination is currently the way to diagnose gluten sensitivity, as a specific test has yet to be created.1

How Do You Treat Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?

There is currently no way to cure or treat food intolerances or sensitivities. The main way to manage digestive symptoms is to avoid triggers

This is the same as managing irritable bowel syndrome and other food intolerances. Switching to a diet that contains gluten-free products can help reduce or control symptoms.

What Not to Eat When Avoiding Gluten?

The following are foods containing gluten. They should be avoided if you are suspected to have a gluten intolerance:

  • Bread and pastries made from wheat, rye, or barley
  • Cakes and cookies
  • Wheat noodles
  • Burger buns and other sandwiches
  • Fried foods breaded with breadcrumbs
  • Pizza dough
  • Fermented alcohols such as beer and vodka
  • Cereals
  • Wheat-based tortilla wraps
  • Soy sauce

There are many foods to avoid, as wheat flour is a key ingredient in many of them.

If you are also on a low-FODMAP diet due to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), know that the foods to avoid are not the same.

Gluten is a protein, while fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides, and polyols (FODMAPs) are carbohydrates. A low-FODMAP diet is not the same as a gluten-free diet.3

What Gluten-Free Foods Are Good Alternatives?

Because avoiding gluten cuts out so many different foods from one’s diet, these foods can be replaced to prevent nutritional deficiencies.

Though gluten is a protein, the main foods that a gluten-free diet affects are common sources of carbohydrates, like:

  • Bread and noodles made from buckwheat flour
  • Rice
  • Rice noodles and rice wines
  • Cauliflower as an alternative base for rice and pizza dough
  • Tamati, a thick kind of soy sauce made from gluten-free ingredients

Switching to a gluten-free diet requires a substantial lifestyle change because of how common gluten is.

A person with gluten intolerance, gluten allergy, wheat allergy, or even coeliac disease will have to take the time to check the ingredients of pre-packaged foods and restaurant meals.

Your doctor may also suggest vitamin supplements. Supplements can offset sources of nutrients lost when switching to a gluten-free diet.

What Are Ways To Manage The Symptoms?

Aside from avoiding gluten, it is also possible to address the symptoms of a gluten intolerance directly. This can involve:

  • Peppermint tea and ginger, both of which can relieve bloating
  • Simethicone, a flatulence medication that can also reduce bloating
  • Over-the-counter medications for diarrhea and constipation
  • Activated charcoal, which can reduce gas and bloating
  • Taking probiotics, which improves one’s gut microbiome, which may ease some symptoms

Research suggests that there is currently no medicine that can directly cure gluten sensitivity.5 Addressing the symptoms is the next-best strategy to a change in diet and lifestyle.

As gluten intolerance is also a potentially lifelong disease, your mental health may be impacted by having to deal with the disease. Seek professional psychiatric help if you are stressed or anxious about having gluten sensitivity.

Can Gluten Sensitivity Go Away?

There is currently no mainstream cure for gluten sensitivity.1 

Non-celiac disease patients instead need to avoid triggering the symptoms. They can also adopt lifestyle changes that reduce the intensity of these symptoms.

In some cases, however, gluten may be re-introduced slowly into the diet of someone with non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. The gut biome can improve from avoiding gluten-containing grains and foods.

Eventually, one’s gut bacteria may become resilient to small amounts of gluten. However, this isn’t certain for everyone with gluten sensitivity and is something that should be discussed with your healthcare provider.

It is important to note that this is only true for non-coeliac gluten sensitivity. For celiac disease patients, gluten must always be avoided. This is because celiac disease triggers an innate immune response. This can cause your body to harm itself in its response to gluten.

Ultimately, the degree to which one eats or avoids gluten is dependent on how disruptive the symptoms are for you. You may choose to live with some effects of non celiac gluten sensitivity to still get to eat gluten-containing foods in moderation.

What are Some Common Questions About Gluten Sensitivity and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?

Is There a Pill to Help with Gluten Intolerance?

No, there is no pill or medication that specifically targets gluten intolerance. However, many common symptoms can be addressed with over-the-counter medications.

Someone with severe symptoms may require a more comprehensive treatment plan. This should be done under the supervision of a healthcare professional.

Instead, research suggests that reducing gluten exposure is still the most approachable treatment. This means switching to a gluten-free diet.

Can You Be Gluten-Sensitive But Not Celiac?

Yes, you can be gluten sensitive but not have celiac disease. Though symptoms overlap for both conditions, they are unrelated in terms of cause.

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a general difficulty of your digestive system in processing gluten. On the other hand, celiac disease is an autoimmune disease caused by a genetic condition. They have several common symptoms between them but very different mechanisms.

What Foods Should Someone with Celiac Disease Avoid?

Wheat, rye, and barley are the most common sources of gluten. The top three foods to cut out of your diet if you have suspected nonceliac gluten sensitivity are breads, pastries, and pastas.

A common alternative to gluten-containing ingredients is buckwheat, which is a gluten-free grain despite having “wheat” in its name. It is high in fiber and protein and can be used in almost all recipes that require wheat, making it an ideal replacement.

Are Gluten-Free Diets Actually Healthier for the Non-Celiac Person?

Gluten-free diets can be just as healthy as a gluten-containing diet. The key is to replace the gluten proteins and the carbohydrates common in gluten-containing foods with protein and carbs from other sources.

Rice makes for a great source of carbohydrates that is gluten-free. Increasing protein intake through meats and gluten-free dairy can replace missing proteins. Fortified grains, nuts, cauliflower, and other vegetables are also nutrient-dense but gluten-free foods.

How Can I Test for Gluten Intolerance at Home?

Self-reported gluten sensitivity is possible if you are able to isolate the cause of your digestive symptoms as gluten.

First, you should attempt a gluten withdrawal and cut out as many sources of gluten in your diet as possible. Take note if you experience less intestinal inflammation, abdominal pains, or other gastrointestinal symptoms.

Then, you can also do the reverse and undertake a “gluten challenge”.6 This involves intentionally eating gluten to see how your body reacts. If the gastrointestinal symptoms return, you can be more sure that they are caused by gluten.

Once you think you are experiencing negative symptoms from gluten exposure, you should be sure about what you have. You may also consider that it may be an undiagnosed celiac disease instead of non celiac gluten intolerance. 

At this point, you should get a professional medical test to be sure and to avoid more severe symptoms.

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Updated on September 21, 2023
Will Hunter
Will Hunter
Content Contributor
Will is a content writer for KnowYourDNA. He received his B.A. in Psychology from the University of California, Los Angeles. Will has 7 years of experience writing health-related content, with an emphasis on nutrition, alternative medicine, and longevity.
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