Symptoms of Gluten Sensitivity

In This Article

If you have been feeling tired and headachy, have a rash that won't go away, and your digestive system has been off for a while, you may want to learn more about gluten sensitivity (a.k.a. gluten allergy). Of course, there are plenty of other potential causes for these symptoms. But the possibility of having an issue with gluten is worth considering if you and your doctor cannot identify other potential reasons for your problems.

Having one or more of these eight symptoms could indicate you have a gluten sensitivity. The next step is getting tested to rule out issues like celiac disease and wheat allergy. You can also talk to your doctor about a trial of a gluten-free diet, but do not start one on your own until your testing is complete. You need to have gluten in your system to determine if you have celiac.

surprising gluten allergy symptoms
​Illustration by Emily Roberts, Verywell

Frequent Symptoms

No two people experience gluten sensitivity exactly the same. Some may have one predominant symptom, while others may have several that are notable.

Digestive Problems

This is, perhaps, the most common symptom people experience as a result of gluten sensitivity. Issues can include diarrhea, constipation, reflux, or simply abdominal pain, which can range from merely annoying to completely debilitating. They are frequently seen whether you have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

Additionally, some people who have been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) actually have gluten sensitivity. When they stop eating gluten, their IBS diminishes or goes away entirely.

Rashes

People with non-celiac gluten sensitivity are prone to various forms of skin rashes. They may have red, itchy bumps similar to the autoimmune skin condition dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), which occurs in conjunction with celiac disease. This rash often resolves with a gluten-free diet.

Other rashes that seem to occur more often for people with gluten sensitivity than the general population include:

It is important to remember, though, that not every rash is caused by gluten.

Foggy Brain

Having a foggy brain means you have difficulty concentrating or experience short-term memory lapses. You also may find yourself losing your train of thought in conversations or when writing. You also might sometimes become confused or disoriented.

Brain fog is a top symptom in three of the five different types of gluten sensitivities. In other words, people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and gluten ataxia (a neurological gluten allergy primarily involving loss of motor skills) all report varying degrees of brain fog.

There are other possible causes of brain fog, of course, including fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. But if you experience this, you might want to consider getting testing for a gluten-related disorder, especially if you also have some of the other symptoms discussed here.

Pounding Headaches

Most people get headaches every now and then. But people with gluten sensitivities, especially those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, seem to be especially prone to them. In addition, migraines may be triggered by gluten.

To back up this claim, a study in the journal Headache found that 56 percent of people with gluten sensitivity and 30 percent of those with celiac disease experienced chronic headaches compared to 14 percent of people in the control group. About 23 percent of those with inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) also reported chronic headaches.

When the researchers looked specifically for people who had migraine headaches, they found migraines occurred in 21 percent of people with celiac disease and 14 percent of those with inflammatory bowel disease, some of whom feel better when they follow the gluten-free diet.

Because certain foods can cause headaches and migraines in those who are susceptible, it is only logical to also consider gluten as a potential trigger for your headaches and migraines.

Pins and Needles

It is fairly common to have your foot or hand "fall asleep" every once in a while, but people who have a gluten sensitivity may have permanent pins and needles in their extremities. This stems from nerve damage in the hands and feet and is called peripheral neuropathy. You may experience intermittent or constant tingling in your arms and legs or even numbness as nerve damage progresses.

Peripheral neuropathy occurs in up to half of those with celiac disease, and in the vast majority of those with the gluten ataxia. It is not clear how many people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity also have peripheral neuropathy, but doctors treating people with this condition report that it is quite common.

Of course, simply having your foot fall asleep occasionally does not mean you have a gluten sensitivity. Peripheral neuropathy is, for example, closely associated with diabetes. It also can be caused by injuries, kidney disorders, and vitamin deficiencies, among other conditions.

Nerve damage can be difficult to heal, but some studies indicate that you may be able to slow or stop the damage by following a gluten-free diet if a gluten-related condition is to blame.

Rare Symptoms

Depression and anxiety are common psychiatric problems. In fact, about 18 percent of the overall U.S. adult population has an anxiety disorder, ​and nearly 7 percent of American adults have major depressive disorder.

You may be surprised to learn that lots of studies have found links between celiac disease, depression, and anxiety, both in adults and teens. There also may be links between these conditions and gluten ataxia.

People who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity also report depression and anxiety levels that seem to be higher than those in the general population. However, to date, there is no scientific research to back up those observations.

Complications

Though celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are considered distinct conditions, it is worth noting some of the complications of celiac, which may apply to those who are sensitive to gluten as well.

Fertility Issues

There is a strong connection between infertility and celiac disease. Both women and men who have been diagnosed with celiac disease are known to struggle with infertility. It is possible that celiac-associated malnutrition may play some role in this struggle, but doctors are not entirely sure what actually causes infertility in people with celiac disease.

When it comes to non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the picture is murkier. Even though some healthcare providers believe the two issues are connected, there is not much medical research on this form of gluten sensitivity and infertility.

Studies have shown that a gluten-free diet helps with fertility in both men and women with celiac disease. While there is no robust scientific evidence to support this approach for those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity just yet, it may be worth discussing the option with your OB-GYN if you are having issues conceiving.

Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Studies show that people with newly diagnosed celiac disease are more likely than average to suffer from symptoms of ADHD. What's more, their ADHD symptoms tend to improve or disappear entirely once they begin eating gluten-free.

Meanwhile, it is less clear whether people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity might have ADHD symptoms that are relieved by the gluten-free diet, as medical research simply has not resolved that question.

Many parents report success when they remove gluten from their ADHD-diagnosed children's diets, regardless of what research has (or hasn't) yet shown. But this effect could simply be due to the elimination of high-sugar and highly-processed foods, the majority of which happen to have gluten in them.

When to See a Doctor

If you have any symptoms of gluten sensitivity, it is worth making an appointment to see your doctor. This is particularly important if you have several of these symptoms or if any persist.

A family member being diagnosed with celiac disease is also a good reason to see your doctor for testing, whether you have symptoms or not.

There is still no accepted diagnostic test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity specifically, though researchers are working to develop one. Consequently, this is a diagnosis of exclusion, which means your doctor will rule out other conditions (including celiac disease) before considering non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

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