Symptoms of gluten sensitivity include irritable bowel type symptoms such as bloating, abdominal pain, and changes in bowel habits, as well as systemic manifestations such as brain fog, headache, fatigue, depression, joint and muscle aches, numbness in the extremities, skin rash, or anemia. I previously discussed why people who suspect they might be gluten sensitive should not go on a gluten-free diet. But if that’s true, what should they do?
The first thing is a formal evaluation for celiac disease, which currently involves blood tests and a small intestinal biopsy. If the evaluation is positive, then a gluten-free diet is necessary. If it’s negative, it’s best to try a healthier diet with more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and beans while avoiding processed junk. In the past, a gluten-free diet had many benefits over the traditional American diet because it required increasing fruit and vegetable intake—so no wonder people felt better eating gluten-free: no more unhealthy bread products, no more fast food restaurants. Now, there is just as much gluten-free junk out there.
If a healthy diet doesn’t help, then the next step is to try ruling out other causes of chronic gastrointestinal distress. In a study of 84 people who claimed gluten caused them adverse reactions (they’re referred to in the literature as“PWAWGs,” People Who Avoid Wheat and/or Gluten), highlighted in my video, How to Diagnose Gluten Intolerance, about a third didn’t appear to have gluten sensitivity at all. Instead, they either had an overgrowth of bacteria in their small intestine, were fructose or lactose intolerant, or had a neuromuscular disorder like gastroparesis or pelvic floor dysfunction. Only if those are also ruled out, would I suggest people suffering from chronic suspicious symptoms try a gluten-free diet. If symptoms improve, stick with it and maybe re-challenge with gluten periodically.
Unlike the treatment for celiac disease, a gluten-free diet for gluten sensitivity is ideal not only to prevent serious complications from an autoimmune reaction, but to resolve symptoms and try to improve a patient’s quality of life. However, a gluten-free diet itself can also reduce quality of life; so, it’s a matter of trying to continually strike the balance. For example, gluten-free foods can be expensive, averaging about triple the cost. Most people would benefit from buying an extra bunch of kale or blueberries instead.
No current data suggest that that general population should maintain a gluten-free lifestyle, but for those with celiac disease, a wheat allergy, or a sensitivity diagnosis, gluten-free diets can be a lifesaver.
For more on gluten, check out Is Gluten Sensitivity Real? and Gluten-Free Diets: Separating the Wheat from the Chat.
Some food strategies that may help with irritable bowel symptoms are covered in a few of my previous videos, such as Kiwifruit for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Cayenne Pepper for Irritable Bowel Syndrome and Chronic Indigestion.