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All about gluten intolerance

4 minute read
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Stomach pain, bloating and other gut problems are signs of this food sensitivity. Learn how to relieve your symptoms at home and when to call a doctor.

Rosemary Black

By Rosemary Black

You love going out for a pasta dinner. But every time you do, you end up with stomach pain and diarrhea. You could have a gluten intolerance (also called gluten sensitivity). About 6% of people in the U.S. have it, according to the Cleveland Clinic. But what does being gluten intolerant mean?

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. When your body reacts badly to it, you’ve got an intolerance. You might notice symptoms when you eat foods such bread, pasta and other grain-based products.

Our guide will help you figure out the telltale signs of gluten intolerance and what you can do to ease your symptoms.

Signs of gluten intolerance

“Gluten intolerance mainly causes GI [gastrointestinal] symptoms,” says Bryan Curtin, MD. He’s a gastroenterologist at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore, Maryland.

GI symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Bloating
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea

You might also feel other symptoms. But these are less common, says Dr. Curtin. They include:

  • Fatigue
  • Brain fog
  • Joint issues

Rarely, you could also have unexplained weight loss or limb numbness, says Bailey Shupe. She’s a registered dietitian at Banner Health in Mesa, Arizona. Any of these symptoms can also occur with other health conditions. So be sure to see your doctor to find out what’s going on.

Remember: Gluten sensitivity does not mean you have a wheat allergy. An allergy would cause different symptoms such as trouble breathing or skin reactions, according to the American College of Gastroenterology (ACG).

Gluten sensitivity is also different from celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder (and a more serious condition). “True celiac disease destroys the lining of the small bowel when exposed to gluten,” says Dr. Curtin. Gluten intolerance is diagnosed when your doctor rules out celiac disease and you start to feel better on a gluten-free diet.

(P.S. Learn 5 more reasons you might have stomach pain here.)

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What to do if you think you’re gluten intolerant

Did you check yes for many of the gluten intolerance signs? Visit your primary care provider (PCP). Gluten sensitivity is still not well understood, and there are no hard-and-fast tests to identify it.

“Your doctor can order lab testing to screen for celiac disease,” Dr. Curtin says. Your provider might refer you to a gastroenterologist, nutritionist or dietitian. They can help with both the medical and nutritional side of treatment, Shupe says.

Bloodwork for celiac disease looks for antibodies that the body makes in reaction to gluten, low levels of certain nutrients and more. People who have gluten sensitivity are less likely than people with celiac disease to have abnormal blood tests, per the ACG. They are also less likely to have other celiac symptoms such as weak bones.

If your doctor thinks you may have gluten sensitivity, you’ll probably be asked to follow a gluten-free diet. If you feel better without eating gluten, that’s a sign that you’re gluten intolerant.

How to relieve your symptoms

The best treatment is to avoid gluten. When you cut gluten out of your diet, you should see a difference immediately. “Be careful, because there are so many foods that have gluten in them that you would not think of,” Shupe says.

Eating a well-balanced, gluten-free diet can be difficult, especially when eating out. But it’s the best way to prevent symptoms, Dr. Curtin says. Luckily, many restaurants now offer gluten-free menus.

Nervous about switching up your diet? Going gluten-free can be scary at first and feel like a major lifestyle change. But if you take things slowly, the transition will be easier to manage.

You’ll need to stop eating grains and grain products that contain gluten: wheat, barley and rye. You should also avoid processed foods that contain these ingredients. Steer clear of:

  • Bread and pasta
  • Cereal and crackers
  • French fries
  • Soy sauce
  • Malt vinegar and extract
  • Beer
  • Hot dogs and processed lunch meats

It’s important to read labels carefully to determine whether a product contains one of these grains, according to the Mayo Clinic.

The good news is that most grocery stores have loads of gluten-free options that taste good. Some bigger stores even have entire gluten-free aisles. And you can enjoy a variety of foods made from gluten-free grains, such as:

  • Rice
  • Corn
  • Soy
  • Potato
  • Buckwheat
  • Quinoa
  • Millet

Always read food labels and look for the phrase “gluten-free.” You can also experiment by cooking some grains you may not have tried before.

Another option for managing your symptoms is taking a probiotic. “There are specific ones that can help with digestion and improve the effectiveness of a gluten-free diet,” says Shupe. So be sure to ask your doctor which ones are best for you first.

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Additional sources
Gluten intolerance stat: Cleveland Clinic (2021). “Gluten intolerance”
Wheat allergy: American College of Gastroenterology (n.d.). “Celiac, Non-Celiac Gluten-Sensitivity, Gluten-Free Diets”
Reading labels: Mayo Clinic (n.d.). “Gluten-free diet”