A fairly trendy health practice among North Americans today is the gluten free diet. Cutting out grains that contain gluten (which include barley, rye, wheat, spelt and improperly processed oats) is becoming popular, and I have patients all the time that are implementing it without really knowing why (“my-best-friend’s-aunt’s-hair-dresser told her to cut out gluten and she lost 10 pounds!” Or something similar).
The celeb following of the G-free diet is also getting a bit obsessive (just look at Elisabeth Hasselbeck and Drew Brees), and starlets everywhere are touting the lifestyle for weight loss and performance enhancement. As a Naturopathic Doctor, I take each case individually, and only recommend a gluten free diet if and when I feel it is indicated for a patient.
Today, I’m not addressing true gluten allergy (called celiac disease) – although 1/133 Canadian adults have documented celiac disease, I want to touch on something that’s much more prevalent and much harder to diagnose, gluten intolerance.
It’s estimated that about 15% of the North American population have a gluten intolerance, and that about 99% of people who are intolerant never receive a formal diagnosis. Although inflammation in the digestive tract is a common symptom, the symptoms can be vague and often lead to an improper or incomplete diagnosis and perpetuation of discomfort for years. No actual damage to the enterocytes (cells of the small intestine) occurs, which is seen in true celiac disease patients, but the immune system/moods/hormones/skin and other body systems often suffer.
Here are 10 signs that you’re gluten intolerant:
1. Digestive issues: like gas, bloating, cramping, diarrhea or constipation. If you have these symptoms frequently and can’t correlate them to a specific food, it may be due to gluten.
2. Keratosis pilaris: some describe this as “chicken skin” – it looks like little bumps that commonly present on the back of one’s upper arms. This condition is usually due to deficiencies of fatty acids and vitamin A, which can result secondary to a gluten intolerance due to fat-malabsorption in the intestines.
3. Neurological symptoms: like feeling dizzy or off balance. About 80% of your body’s nervous system is tied up in the gut. When inflammation irritates the nerves here, it can throw your entire nervous system off.
4. Brain fog: call it mommy-brain, student-brain or whatever you like. Having difficulty with focus and concentration or lapses in your short term memory can result from an intolerance to gluten.
5. Fatigue: if you find that you become excessively tired after eating a meal that contains gluten, or have been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome or fibromyalgia, you might be experiencing symptoms of gluten intolerance. While removing gluten is not a cure-all for these serious conditions, it can help to improve symptoms in patients who are sensitive.
6. Joint pain: inflammation in the joints with symptoms such as swelling and pain can be clues to a food intolerance. We see clinically that removing gluten products often improves symptoms of arthritis.
7. Headaches: commonly, migraine headaches are triggered by dietary habits, but we usually think of red wine and chocolate as aggravators. Gluten is another possible culprit.
8. Mood imbalances: symptoms of depression, anxiety, mood swings and even ADD often improve on a G free diet. In fact, a lot of research has been done into a gluten and casein free diet in autism and ADD (this translates to gluten and dairy free), with some truly remarkable improvements in children’s behaviour patterns. The gluten molecule has a mild opiate-like action on the brain – causing addiction to the substance, but also a feeling of euphoria.
9. Autoimmune disease: if you’ve been told by your doctor that you have an autoimmune condition (like Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, Lupus, or rheumatoid arthritis), you may want to consider a gluten free diet. Often reducing the amount of irritability present for the immune system in the gut can help these types of disorders.
10. Hormone imbalances: trouble conceiving, heavy or irregular periods, PCOS, and PMS symptoms can also be aggravated if one is gluten intolerant and consumes gluten products.
If you think you may have a gluten intolerance, see your friendly ND ASAP! We can help you with an elimination diet or further testing for celiac disease or simple intolerance.