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The 14 Most Common Signs of Gluten Intolerance

Caution Tape Wrapped Around WheatGluten
intolerance is a fairly common problem.

It is characterized by adverse reactions to gluten, a
protein found in wheat, barley and rye.

Celiac disease is the most severe form of gluten intolerance.

It is an autoimmune disease that affects about 1% of the
population and may lead to damage in the digestive system
(1, 2).

However, 0.5–13% of people may also have non-celiac gluten
sensitivity
, a milder form of gluten intolerance that can
still cause problems (3, 4).

Both forms of gluten intolerance can cause widespread symptoms,
many of which have nothing to do with digestion.

Here are the 14 main signs and symptoms of gluten intolerance.

1. Bloating


Bloating
is when you feel as if your belly is swollen or
full of gas after you’ve eaten. This can make you feel
miserable (5).

Although bloating is very common and can have many
explanations, it may also be a sign of gluten intolerance.

In fact, feeling bloated is one of the most common complaints
of people who are sensitive or intolerant to gluten (6, 7).

One study showed that 87% of people who had suspected
non-celiac gluten sensitivity experienced bloating (8).



Bottom Line: Bloating is one of the most
common symptoms of gluten intolerance. It involves the belly
feeling swollen after eating.

2. Diarrhea, Constipation and Smelly Feces

Five Slices of White Bread

Occasionally getting diarrhea and
constipation
is normal, but it may be a cause for concern
if it happens regularly.

These also happen to be a common symptom of gluten intolerance.

Individuals with celiac disease experience inflammation in the
gut after eating gluten.

This damages the gut lining and leads to poor nutrient
absorption, resulting in significant digestive discomfort and
frequent diarrhea or constipation (9).

However, gluten may also cause digestive symptoms in some
people who don’t have celiac disease (10, 11, 12, 13).

More than 50% of gluten-sensitive individuals regularly
experience diarrhea, while about 25% experience constipation
(8).

Furthermore, individuals with celiac disease may experience
pale and foul-smelling feces due to poor nutrient absorption.

Frequent diarrhea can cause some major health concerns, such as
loss of electrolytes, dehydration and fatigue (14).

Bottom Line: Gluten-intolerant people
commonly experience diarrhea or constipation. Celiac disease
patients may also experience pale and foul-smelling feces.

3. Abdominal Pain

Abdominal pain is very common and can have numerous
explanations.

However, it is also the single most common symptom of an
intolerance to gluten (13, 15, 16).

Up to 83% of those with gluten intolerance experience abdominal
pain and discomfort after eating gluten (8, 17).

Bottom Line: Abdominal pain is the most
common symptom of gluten intolerance, experienced by up to
83% of gluten intolerant individuals.

4. Headaches

Brunette with a Headache Holding Her Hands to Her Temples

Many people experience headaches or migraines once in a while.

Migraines are a common condition, with 10–12% of the Western
population experiencing them regularly (18, 19).

Interestingly, studies have shown that gluten-intolerant
individuals may be more prone to migraines than others
(20, 21).

If you have regular headaches or migraines without any apparent
cause, you could be sensitive to gluten.

Bottom Line: Gluten-intolerant individuals
seem to be more prone to migraines than healthy people.

5. Feeling Tired

Feeling tired is very common and usually not linked to any
disease.

However, if you constantly feel very tired, then you should
explore the possibility of an underlying cause.

Gluten-intolerant individuals are very prone to fatigue and
tiredness, especially after eating foods that contain gluten
(22, 23).

Studies have shown that 60–82% of gluten-intolerant individuals
commonly experience tiredness and fatigue (8, 23).

Furthermore, gluten intolerance can also cause iron-deficiency
anemia, which in turn will cause more tiredness and lack of
energy (24).

Bottom Line: Feeling extremely tired is
another common symptom, affecting about 60–82% of
gluten-intolerant individuals.

6. Skin Problems

Gluten Free Stamp on a Slice of Bread

Gluten intolerance can also affect your skin.

A blistering skin condition called dermatitis herpetiformis is the skin
manifestation of celiac disease (25).

Everyone who has the disease is sensitive to gluten, but less
than 10% of patients experience digestive symptoms that
indicate celiac disease (25).

Furthermore, several other skin diseases have shown improvement
while on a gluten-free
diet
. These include (26):

  • Psoriasis: An inflammatory disease of the
    skin characterized by scaling and reddening of the skin
    (27, 28, 29).
  • Alopecia areata: An autoimmune disease that
    appears as non-scarring hair loss (28, 30, 31).
  • Chronic urticaria: A skin condition
    characterized by recurrent, itchy, pink or red lesions with
    pale centers (32, 33).

Bottom Line: Dermatitis herpetiformis is the
skin manifestation of celiac disease. Several other skin
diseases may also improve with a gluten-free diet.

7. Depression

Depression affects about 6% of adults each year. The symptoms
can be very disabling and involve feelings of hopelessness and
sadness (34).

People with digestive issues seem to be more prone to both
anxiety and depression, compared to healthy individuals
(35).

This is especially common among people who have celiac disease
(36, 37, 38, 39).

There are a few theories about how gluten intolerance can drive
depression. These include (40):

  • Abnormal serotonin levels: Serotonin is a
    neurotransmitter that allows cells to communicate. It is
    commonly known as one of the “happiness” hormones. Decreased
    amounts of it have been linked with depression (37, 41).
  • Gluten exorphins: These peptides are formed
    during the digestion of some of the gluten proteins. They may
    interfere with the central nervous system, which may raise
    the risk of depression (42).
  • Changes in the gut microbiota: Increased
    amounts of harmful bacteria and decreased amounts of
    beneficial bacteria may affect the central nervous system,
    increasing the risk of depression (43).
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Several studies have shown that depressed individuals with
self-reported gluten intolerance want to continue a gluten-free
diet because they feel better, even though their digestive
symptoms may not be resolved (44, 45).

That suggests that gluten exposure on its own may induce
feelings of depression, irrespective to digestive symptoms.

Bottom Line: Depression is more common among
individuals with gluten intolerance.

8. Unexplained Weight Loss

Brunette Holding a Bag of Baguettes

An unexpected weight change is often a cause for concern.

Although it can stem from various reasons, unexplained
weight loss
is a common side effect of undiagnosed celiac
disease (46).

In one study in celiac disease patients, two-thirds had lost
weight in the six months leading up to their diagnosis
(17).

The weight loss may be explained by a variety of digestive
symptoms, coupled with poor nutrient absorption.

Bottom Line: Unexpected weight loss may be a
sign of celiac disease, especially if coupled with other
digestive symptoms.

9. Iron-Deficiency Anemia

Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common
nutrient deficiency in the world and accounts for anemia in 5%
and 2% of American women and men, respectively (47).

Iron deficiency causes symptoms such as low blood volume,
fatigue, shortness of breath, dizziness, headaches, pale skin
and weakness (48).

In celiac disease, nutrient absorption in the large intestine
is impaired, resulting in a reduced amount of iron being
absorbed from food (49).

Iron deficiency anemia may be among the first symptoms of
celiac disease that your doctor notices (50).

Recent studies suggest that iron deficiency may be significant
in both children and adults with celiac disease (51, 52).

Bottom Line: Celiac disease may cause poor
absorption of iron from your diet, causing iron-deficiency
anemia.

10. Anxiety

Bread Caution

Anxiety may affect 3–30% of people worldwide (53).

It involves feelings of worry, nervousness, unease and
agitation. Furthermore, it often goes hand-in-hand with
depression (54).

Individuals with gluten intolerance seem to be more prone to
anxiety and panic disorders than healthy individuals (39, 55, 56, 57, 58).

Additionally, a study showed that up to 40% of individuals with
self-reported gluten sensitivity stated that they regularly
experienced anxiety (8).

Bottom Line: Gluten-intolerant individuals
seem to be more prone to anxiety than healthy individuals.

11. Autoimmune Disorders

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that causes your immune
system to attack your digestive tract after you consume gluten
(59).

Interestingly, having this autoimmune disease makes you more
prone to other autoimmune diseases, such as autoimmune thyroid
disease (60, 61).

Furthermore, autoimmune thyroid disorders may be a risk factor
for developing emotional and depressive disorders (62, 63, 64).

This also makes celiac disease more common in people that have
other autoimmune diseases, such as type 1 diabetes, autoimmune
liver diseases and inflammatory bowel disease (61).

However, non-celiac gluten sensitivity has not been associated
with an increased risk of autoimmune disorders, malabsorption
or nutritional deficiencies (65, 66).

Bottom Line: Individuals with autoimmune
diseases like celiac disease are more likely to get other
autoimmune diseases, such as thyroid disorders.

12. Joint and Muscle Pain

Man with Elbow Joint Pain

There are numerous reasons why people experience joint and
muscle pain.

There is a theory that those with celiac disease have a
genetically determined over-sensitive or over-excitable nervous
system.

Therefore, they may have a lower threshold to activate sensory
neurons that cause pain in muscles and joints (67, 68).

Moreover, gluten exposure may cause inflammation in
gluten-sensitive individuals. The inflammation may result in
widespread pain, including in joints and muscles (8).

Bottom Line: Gluten-intolerant individuals
commonly report joint and muscle pain. This is possibly due
to an over-sensitive nervous system.

13. Leg or Arm Numbness

Another surprising symptom of gluten intolerance is neuropathy,
which involves numbness or tingling in the arms and legs.

This condition is common in individuals with diabetes and
vitamin B12 deficiency. It can also be caused by toxicity and
alcohol consumption (69).

However, individuals with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity
seem to be at a higher risk of experiencing arm and leg
numbness, compared to healthy control groups (70, 71, 72).

While the exact cause is not known, some have linked this
symptom to the presence of certain antibodies related to gluten
intolerance (73).

Bottom Line: Gluten intolerance may cause
numbness or tingling in the arms and legs.

14. Brain Fog

No Wheat Allowed Icon

“Brain fog” refers to the feeling of being unable to think
clearly.

People have described it as being forgetful, having difficulty
thinking, feeling cloudy and having mental fatigue (74).

Having a “foggy mind” is a common symptom of gluten
intolerance, affecting up to 40% of gluten-intolerant
individuals (8, 75, 76).

This symptom may be caused by a reaction to certain antibodies
in gluten, but the exact reason is unknown (77, 78).

Bottom Line: Gluten-intolerant individuals
may experience brain fog. It involves having difficulty
thinking, mental fatigue and forgetfulness.

Take Home Message

Gluten intolerance can have numerous symptoms.

However, keep in mind that most of the symptoms on the list
above may have other explanations as well.

Nevertheless, if you regularly experience some of them without
an apparent cause, then you may be reacting negatively to the
gluten in your diet.

In this case, you should consult with a doctor or try
temporarily removing gluten from your diet to see if it helps.

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