General Medical

Gluten Sensitivity: Symptoms That May Surprise You

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Raise your hand if you are sick of hearing about gluten. My hand just went up, and I’m gluten free! It probably seems as if gluten is just the latest dietary fad, so you may be tempted to dismiss this article. Don’t! Unless you already know a lot about what gluten can do to your body, you should read on, because you or someone you care about might be experiencing a health challenge from gluten—and not even know it.

A small but growing percentage of the population— about 1 percent, or 3 million Americans—have celiac disease. [See “Gluten-Free Diets: Science or Fad?”] If these people eat gluten, certain antibodies develop in their blood, and biopsies of their small intestines show classic flattening of the villi, or fingerlike projections from the intestinal walls, whose job is to absorb nutrients from food into the blood.

A larger group of Americans—18 million (6 percent)—have neither the flattened intestinal villi nor celiac antibodies, yet they seem to feel better when they avoid gluten, and are referred to as gluten sensitive.

Celiac disease has long been recognized as a disorder that requires people to follow a gluten free diet. Gluten sensitivity, on the other hand, has only recently gained this level of recognition among doctors. Although gluten sensitivity can’t be diagnosed with the tangible methods of testing that are used for celiac disease, it shares the same types of symptoms (some of which may surprise you), including:

  • Gastrointestinal (GI) distress, such as diarrhea, constipation or abdominal pain;
  • Infertility;
  • Autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease and Sjogren’s syndrome (dry mouth, dry eyes);
  • Arthritis;
  • Osteoporosis;
  • Fatigue;
  • Neurologic problems, such as feeling “foggy headed,” dizzy, or numb, or having difficulty walking (ataxia).
  • Depression
  • Hyperactivity
  • Anemia

Unlike most foods, gluten isn’t broken down into its smaller components  in anyone’s digestive tract, which may be part of the reason it is prone to become such a problematic food for some people. Additionally, a possible explanation for these varied autoimmune diseases that occur in people with celiac disease is that the antibody that forms because of the gluten also attacks similar-looking proteins in other parts of the body. This, however, doesn’t explain why these autoimmune diseases happen in gluten sensitive people who have no celiac antibodies. The reason may be that there are antibodies, but we just aren’t testing for them. In fact, there is at least one lab that tests for a wider variety of gluten-related antibodies (e.g., Cyrex Labs,) but this level of testing is not (yet!) used by conventional doctors, and, much to the frustration of integrative practitioners like me, is not allowed in New York State.

It is important to consider gluten as the culprit when any of this myriad of health challenges occurs, or when almost any other mysterious symptom arises. As an example, I saw one 8-year old boy who had a chronic cough for over a year that sounded more like a tic than an infection. Doctors couldn’t explain it, but two weeks after he stopped gluten, the cough vanished. Another patient, a 64-year old woman, came to me with constipation that had plagued her for her entire life, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) for 15 years, osteoporosis, dry eyes, dry mouth, and a weakened immune system (i.e, low in certain antibodies). She tested negative for celiac disease; however, when she stopped eating gluten, not only did her IBS symptoms disappear, but, as her mind cleared, she discovered that she had been living with brain fog for years.

Next page: Avoiding gluten

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  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. April 30, 2015 at 3:04 pm

    Thanks for commenting. I tell patients that if they feel better with a diet totally gluten free, then the test results don’t matter. Your family member doesn’t need “doctors to acknowledge the blood work done from the integrative doctor” in order to change a diet and feel better!!
    Dr. Pat

  • Susanne April 30, 2015 at 12:54 pm

    This is exactly what’s happened with my family member. Tested by blood showing high levels of IgA etc. but cleared from an endoscopy with no flattened villi. IBS symptoms lessened, food diary still needed to isolate sensitivities further. No doctors will acknowledge the blood work done from the integrative doctor. Test results are consistent with gluten sensitivities and inflammation.

  • B. Elliott April 30, 2015 at 8:53 am

    Thank you for this terrific article as well as very helpful links.