If you've gone to a grocery store lately, you've likely seen an increase in items labeled "gluten-free." A wide range of cereals, chips, breakfast foods, canned goods and even dairy products are proudly wearing a "gluten-free" label. As a nutrition and exercise blogger, I had a surface level knowledge of gluten, but it was never important to me.
Then one day, gluten became extremely important to me. That was the day I was in the doctor's office trying to talk him out of sending me to the hospital for dehydration. For months, I had some symptoms that had gradually increased in severity until I was no longer absorbing vitamins and nutrients from food. Because I kept a very detailed food diary in a good old-fashioned notebook, my doctor looked at my last few weeks and instructed me to start an immediate elimination diet - and the only thing I had to eliminate was gluten. I spent the next four days eating the modified BRA(t) diet, which consist of bananas, rice, applesauce and tea ... with no toast or bread. Five days later, I felt like I had my life back. It was that simple. A few weeks later, blood tests confirmed I was now absorbing nutrients and vitamins again. My doctor diagnosed me with Celiac Disease after more blood tests and after several instances of cross-contamination caused severe reactions.
The severity of this story could have been avoided if I knew the surprising symptoms that result from gluten intolerance. Before I discuss those, let's get a working definition of gluten. At its simplest, gluten is a protein primarily found in wheat, barley and rye. Many people experience serious side effects after eating it. The following symptoms are best viewed as one big picture; alone, they may not be strong indicators of a gluten problem. A combination may be a neon sign that gluten is causing the body to attack itself.
1. Gastrointestinal effects. Because my stomach symptoms started out very gradually, and because they coincided with an extremely stressful work situation, I attributed these symptoms to stress and assumed they would work themselves out when school let out for the summer. Instead, they got worse. Symptoms such as intense bloating, diarrhea and constipation are sure signs of gluten intolerance.
2. Malabsorption of vitamins. If a person is gluten sensitive or intolerant, their stomach lining can no longer absorb essential nutrients from food. Low iron is a common indicator of gluten intolerance.
3. Skin rash. Keratosis pilaris and dermatitis herpetiformis are two skin conditions with direct connections to gluten exposure. Both of these are extremely itchy skin rashes that appear on your arms, torso, face, buttocks, elbows and hairline. Other skin irritations that mimic eczema might signal a gluten contamination.
4. Migraines. Headaches are symptoms of so many medical problems. Migraines that are combined with daily diarrhea, a low iron count and a skin rash paint a different picture. And if your migraine starts within an hour or two of ingesting food that contains gluten, it's highly indicative of a gluten sensitivity.
5. Joint pain. Gluten contamination causes an inflammatory response in the body. That inflammation will make itself known in various ways. Joint pain, often misdiagnosed as rheumatoid arthritis, is a very common symptom of gluten intolerance. This is the symptom that surprised me the most. After I eliminated gluten, I was shocked at how much joint pain I had been having. When it resurfaced within hours of a gluten contamination, it was almost unbearable.
6. Lactose intolerance. If you already have problems digesting foods containing lactose, chances are you're having problems with gluten. Gluten destroys the stomach lining. That stomach lining contains lactase, the enzyme necessary for digesting lactose. If gluten has compromised the stomach lining and lactase, you will experience symptoms aligned with lactose intolerance. If you're already lactose intolerant and have other symptoms on this list, it may be smart to consider eliminating gluten.
7. Chronic fatigue. Like migraines, chronic fatigue alone is not a strong indicator of gluten intolerance. It's become a clearer symptom when combined with gastrointestinal problems, especially frequent diarrhea. If the body is not absorbing nutrients and essential vitamins, fatigue is sure to take over.
8. Fibromyalgia. Some medical experts believe fibromyalgia is a symptom, not a disease. Inflammation of the connective tissue is one of the strongest symptoms of a gluten intolerance. Essentially, the body thinks gluten is an enemy and will send out antibodies to destroy it. Those antibodies destroy the lining of the stomach and intestines. Just like with joint pain, the inflammation could present itself in any part of the body. If a doctor told you that you have fibromyalgia, try eliminating gluten and see how you feel.
In today's world of the rat race, stress is often cited as the cause of these symptoms. Instead of anti-depressants, sleeping aids or anti-anxiety meds (some of which contain gluten), take a good look at what you're eating.
In future posts, I'll dive deeper into the reasons behind increases in gluten problems; specifics about Celiac Disease, including heredity; elimination and reintroduction diets; and how to manage living in the free world without being contaminated with gluten. Hint: It's everywhere!
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Katrina Plyler is a full-time teacher and part-time runner, blogger and amateur photographer. She is a regular contributor to the Cooking Light Blogger's Connection and has been featured in Fitness magazine. Her food photography is regularly accepted in Tastespotting.com and Foodgawker.com galleries. For more information on the daily adventures of teaching, running and cooking, check out her blog, Katrina Runs for Food.