Gluten Sensitivity Symptoms

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can affect nearly every system in your body. According to researchers, symptoms can include:

  • Digestive effects
  • Skin problems such as rashes
  • Brain fog
  • Joint pain
  • Numbness in your extremities
Slice of bread with a question mark cut into it
Stefka Pavlova / Getty Images

Similarity to Celiac

If you think those symptoms sound a lot like symptoms of celiac disease, you're absolutely right. It's impossible to distinguish between gluten sensitivity and celiac disease with symptoms alone—the two conditions present with near-identical symptoms.

Even more confusing, celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are not the only types of "gluten allergies" it's possible to have. There are, in fact, five different types of "gluten allergy" and a wide variety of signs indicating you may have a gluten problem.

In fact, it's quite possible that the culprit in "gluten sensitivity" isn't even gluten at all. Some scientists speculate that people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity actually are reacting to another compound in wheat, such as:

  • Fructans (a complex carbohydrate that can cause symptoms in people with irritable bowel syndrome)
  • Amylase trypsin inhibitors (which are proteins)

Research into all of this is ongoing, and doctors should have a much better idea of what's going on within the next few years.

What Is Gluten Sensitivity?

Back to non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Since research into this condition is relatively new, not all physicians have accepted it as a "real" condition. Consequently, not all will give you a diagnosis of gluten sensitivity.

Those practitioners who will diagnose the condition will conduct celiac disease testing to rule out celiac first.

Still, recent medical research on gluten sensitivity has strengthened the theory that it's a separate condition from celiac disease. Celiac is caused by your body's reaction to the gluten protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.

It's less clear what exactly causes gluten sensitivity. Because it may be a non-gluten component of wheat and the other gluten grains, "non-celiac wheat sensitivity" may be a better name for it. For now, though, most medical researchers refer to the condition as "non-celiac gluten sensitivity."

To get a better picture of the most common symptoms found in gluten sensitivity, Verywell Health spoke with three physician researchers who have spent a great deal of time studying the condition:

  • Dr. Alessio Fasano
  • Dr. Kenneth Fine
  • Dr. Rodney Ford

They discussed their own clinical experience involving patients with gluten sensitivity. It should be noted that in some cases, their opinions haven't been confirmed in published research or accepted by the medical community at large.

Digestive Symptoms

Digestive gluten sensitivity symptoms are very common, according to doctors who have researched it and treat patients with the condition.

Dr. Fasano heads the Massachusetts General Center for Celiac Research and published the first paper describing the molecular basis for gluten sensitivity.

He says gluten-sensitive people frequently have "IBS-like" symptoms, including diarrhea and "stomach ache." (Of course, there's considerable overlap between irritable bowel syndrome and celiac disease symptoms, too.)

Dr. Fine, who founded Enterolab and its gluten sensitivity testing program, says most people he's diagnosed with gluten sensitivity have "some GI symptoms—anything from heartburn to constipation. Diarrhea is classic, also bloating is classic, [and] passing gas is pretty common."

Neurological Problems

Just like celiac disease, gluten sensitivity can cause fatigue, brain fog, and other cognitive problems, including gluten-related attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Dr. Fasano and Dr. Fine claim.

Dr. Fasano says he sees headaches (including gluten-induced migraines) and brain fog in about one-third of the people he has diagnosed with non-celiac gluten sensitivity—far more than in celiac disease.

People diagnosed with gluten sensitivity also report feelings of gluten-induced depression and anxiety (which also are linked to celiac). Results of one study backed the idea that gluten may make you depressed if you're gluten-sensitive even if you don't have celiac disease.

Dr. Rodney Ford, a Christchurch, New Zealand-based pediatrician and author of The Gluten Syndrome, was the first to hypothesize that gluten sensitivity is primarily a neurological condition.

"It's very clear that with gluten, one of its main target organs is neural tissue," Dr. Ford told me.

Other Symptoms

Other symptoms of gluten sensitivity impact the skin, endocrine system, and joints.

Skin Symptoms

Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH) is the skin condition most commonly associated with celiac disease.

However, people with gluten sensitivity frequently exhibit various rashes and other skin conditions that clear up when they go gluten-free, according to the researchers' experience. Dr. Fasano says he's seen many skin rashes in people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

"It's not DH—it's more eczema-like," he explains. In fact, there is some evidence that eating gluten-free may help with eczema, even in people who don't necessarily have celiac disease.

Dr. Ford and Dr. Fine agree that your skin can suffer if you're gluten-sensitive, with rashes and other skin symptoms. The symptoms disappear when the person follows a gluten-free diet and reappear in the case of a glutening.

Endocrine Symptoms

Like celiac disease, gluten sensitivity may cause symptoms that involve your endocrine (hormone) system, such as infertility and thyroid disease, Dr. Fine says. He also sees gluten-caused asthma in some people with gluten sensitivity.

Joint Pain

In addition, Dr. Fine, Dr. Fasano, and Dr. Ford all note that many people experience anemia, joint pain, and tingling/numbness in their extremities from gluten ingestion. These are also common celiac disease symptoms.

New Area of Research

Of course, recognition of gluten sensitivity as a possible separate condition from celiac disease and irritable bowel syndrome is quite new, and there's no major research to link any of the above-mentioned symptoms conclusively to gluten sensitivity.

Many physicians discount reports of non-celiac gluten sensitivity and will tell their patients that they don't have a problem with gluten if they test negative for celiac disease.

There's also no explanation of why the symptoms of gluten sensitivity and celiac disease mirror each other so precisely.

However, Dr. Ford has a theory: He believes the symptoms are identical because gluten causes them directly in both groups of people, and that intestinal damage doesn't play a significant role in causing symptoms.

In other words, even though celiacs get villous atrophy and the gluten-sensitive do not, he believes both groups get direct symptoms from gluten that are unrelated to intestinal damage.

Dr. Ford said even though villous atrophy is a diagnostic test for celiac, it has little to do with symptoms.

Dr. Rodney Ford

"Gluten sensitivity is primarily a neurologic disease. The gastrointestinal symptoms are caused by an irritation to the autonomic nervous system—that's the involuntary system that runs your heart, lungs, and gut. When you go into autonomic overload from gluten, you get those symptoms."

— Dr. Rodney Ford

A Word From Verywell

None of this information about non-celiac gluten sensitivity symptoms has been proven in clinical studies as of yet; at the moment, it just represents the opinions of physicians who are researching the topic.

However, as research continues, we will hopefully learn more about these symptoms and who might be most susceptible to them.

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Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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