Gluten Intolerance: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment

Discover the symptoms, causes, and effective treatments for gluten intolerance, a condition that affects millions. Learn how a gluten-free diet can improve your digestive health.

Gluten intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, makes people have bad reactions after eating gluten. Gluten is in wheat, barley, and rye.1 It’s not the same as celiac disease or a wheat allergy. About 6% of people in the U.S. might have trouble with gluten.1 It can cause problems in the stomach, skin, mood, and joints. This piece will look into the signs, reasons, how to find it, and what helps with gluten intolerance.

Key Takeaways

  • Gluten intolerance, or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, causes negative reactions to gluten.
  • It can affect many parts of the body like the stomach, skin, and mood.
  • About 6% of Americans might have this issue.1
  • In contrast, celiac disease harms the small intestine and affects about 1% of people.2
  • Symptoms of gluten intolerance are things like stomach pain, feeling full, and stomach issues.1

What is Gluten Intolerance?

Gluten intolerance means your body reacts badly to gluten, a protein in wheat, barley, and rye. It’s also called non-celiac gluten sensitivity.3 This can cause many issues. For example, celiac disease can harm the small intestine, while a wheat allergy leads to immune responses.

About 1% of people have celiac disease, but up to 13% could have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.2 The effects aren’t always in the stomach. They can show up in various ways.

Definition and Overview

Gluten intolerance means getting sick from gluten-containing foods.3 It’s different from celiac disease, which harms the small intestine. People with gluten intolerance might feel sick but won’t have the same trouble with their intestine.

Types of Gluten-Related Disorders

There are two main gluten issues: celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease affects about 1% of the U.S. population. It’s an autoimmune problem. Wheat allergy, impacting about 1% of Americans, is a reaction to wheat proteins. This is different from gluten intolerance.4

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance is less severe than celiac disease. It could affect up to 13% of the U.S. population.2 This includes people who don’t have celiac disease but feel bad after eating gluten.

Symptoms of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is the most severe form of gluten intolerance. It’s an autoimmune disorder that harms the small intestine and slows nutrient absorption.5 Over half of adults with celiac disease face symptoms beyond the gut, such as diarrhea, constipation, bloating, gas, and foul-smelling stools.5 Kids are more likely to have tummy troubles than grown-ups.5 This issue might cause children to struggle with appetite, lose weight, and show signs like ADHD and seizures.

Fatigue and Weakness

Fatigue and weakness are common signs of celiac disease. They stem from not getting enough nutrients and chronic inflammation.5 If left untreated, the disease can lead to severe outcomes. These may include malnutrition, fragile bones, fertility issues, lactose intolerance, cancer, and problems with the nervous system.5

Skin Reactions

Some people with celiac disease develop skin problems like dermatitis herpetiformis. This condition causes itchy, blistering skin. It’s related to the disease.

Mental Health Implications

Celiac disease has connections to mental health struggles such as feeling down or anxious.2 It also increases the chance of having other autoimmune diseases.5

Celiac Disease Symptoms

Symptoms of Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is a milder form of not being able to tolerate gluten. It leads to various symptoms.6 These include feeling bloated, discomfort in the stomach, and issues like diarrhea and constipation.7 People might also get headaches and migraines from gluten.7 Plus, they could feel depressed or anxious.6 The cause might be because of body inflammation and changes in stomach bacteria.

Bloating and Abdominal Discomfort

Eating foods with gluten can make people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity feel bloated and have stomach pain.7 This happens because the body fights against the gluten, causing gas and pain in the stomach.

Diarrhea and Constipation

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can bring about diarrhea and constipation.7 These issues are not only uncomfortable but can also lower a person’s quality of life.

Headaches and Migraines

More headaches and migraines are found in those sensitive to gluten.7 The reasons aren’t completely clear, but it’s thought that gluten may cause body inflammation and affect the brain.

Mood Disturbances

For some, feeling off mentally, like with depression and anxiety, is part of non-celiac gluten sensitivity.6 These mental effects can really harm a person’s happiness and daily life.

Causes and Risk Factors

What causes gluten intolerance is not completely clear. But, it likely comes from both genetic and environmental factors. If your family has a history of celiac disease or other autoimmune disorders, you might be at more risk.5

Genetic Predisposition

Celiac disease, the severe type of gluten intolerance, is found in families. If someone in your family has celiac or dermatitis herpetiformis, you might be more at risk.5 The connection with non-celiac gluten sensitivity is also thought to have a genetic side, but it’s not as clear.89

See also  Celiac Disease: Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment Options

Environmental Triggers

Things like viral infections or extreme emotional stress could also trigger gluten intolerance.8 These issues might mess up with our immune system, leading to this condition.

Associated Autoimmune Disorders

Gluten intolerance is often seen with other autoimmune disorders like type 1 diabetes or Hashimoto’s thyroiditis.5 This could mean there is a common reason behind why these conditions happen and how our body reacts to gluten.

Causes and Risk Factors

Gluten Intolerance

Gluten intolerance covers many disorders related to gluten, like10 celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Celiac disease is an autoimmune issue that harms the small intestine. On the other hand,10 non-celiac gluten sensitivity causes lighter but various symptoms. About 1% of people have celiac disease, which is serious. Yet,2 non-celiac gluten sensitivity is less intense and affects 0.5–13% of people.

Both can really affect someone’s health and life quality. So, it’s really important to know the differences. And importantly, to get the right diagnosis and treatment.

Celiac DiseaseNon-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity
10 Celiac disease is more serious than intolerance. It’s an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten that can harm the small intestine.10 Gluten intolerance means the body reacts badly to gluten. It’s not as severe as celiac disease.
2 Celiac disease is more common and more serious. It affects about 1% of people.2 Non-celiac gluten sensitivity leads to milder symptoms and affects up to 13% of people.
2 It often causes iron deficiency anemia, which is common worldwide. This is because nutrients aren’t absorbed well.10 Symptoms of gluten intolerance vary but can include bloating, diarrhea, and more.
2 Depression rates were high in 2020, especially among the young.10 Doctors don’t know why gluten intolerance happens, but it’s different from celiac disease.
2 Anxiety affected 19% of US adults last year.10 Treating gluten intolerance means eating gluten-free and sometimes taking supplements.
2 About a sixth of US adults get migraines. Those with gluten sensitivity might get them more often.10 Handling gluten intolerance means a special diet and maybe seeing a nutritionist regularly.
2 Pain is a common sign of intolerance, especially in the joints. It could be due to inflammation.10 Gluten intolerance can start at any age, and we can’t prevent it.
2 People with sensitivity might feel numbness in their limbs. It might be due to certain antibodies.11 Gluten intolerance is more widespread than coeliac disease.
2 Brain fog and memory problems might be tied to gluten intolerance.11 In gluten intolerance, there is no cell damage or inflammation.

Diagnosis and Testing

Diagnosing gluten intolerance may require blood tests, endoscopy, and biopsy, plus genetic tests.12 Blood tests find specific antibodies that show an immune response to gluten.13 Testing for celiac disease searches for these antibodies. High levels might mean a reaction to gluten.13

Blood Tests

Blood tests are key when looking into celiac disease or gluten sensitivity.12 People suspected of celiac disease often get these tests and biopsies.12 But, if someone recently stopped eating gluten, they might need to start again for accurate test results.12

Endoscopy and Biopsy

An endoscopy and biopsy of the small intestine are crucial for a celiac disease diagnosis.12 This method lets doctors see the intestines directly. They take samples to study the tissue closer.12

Genetic Testing

12 Over 99% of celiac patients show specific gene types, HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8.12 Also,13 testing these genes can rule out celiac disease. It might help spot those more likely to get gluten disorders.

Talk to a doctor before changing what you eat. It could mess up test results.12 A full exam, using several tests, can guarantee a correct answer. Then, you can start the right treatment.

Treatment and Management

The main treatment for gluten intolerance is a gluten-free diet for life.14 This means no foods with wheat, barley, or rye. It also means watching out for hidden gluten in processed foods, meds, and personal care items.15

Gluten-Free Diet

Nutritional supplementation might be needed to fix any nutrients your body isn’t absorbing well.14 Also, in some situations, medicine and supportive care like help with pain or mental health might be used. This is to make symptoms better and handle other health issues that might come up.14

Nutritional Supplementation

If you have Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity (NCGS), you might handle a bit of gluten okay if you’ve been avoiding it for a year or two.16 NCGS is different from Celiac disease. Celiacs need to avoid gluten totally for life. Yet, those with NCGS might not need to be as strict. For them, a diet with very little gluten might work to keep symptoms away.16

Medication and Supportive Care

It’s not clear if gluten or other parts of gluten grains cause NCGS symptoms.16 For some with NCGS who still feel bad on a gluten-free diet, trying a low-FODMAP diet might help. This has made some folks with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) feel better.16

See also  What Causes Bloating? Reasons for Belly Discomfort

There’s a hope in a new medicine to fight gluten symptoms. Early tests show it might help with issues like diarrhea after accidentally eating gluten. This could mean good news for those with gluten intolerance.14

Complications and Associated Conditions

Gluten intolerance, if not treated, can cause serious problems.5 It may lead to not getting enough necessary nutrients like vitamins and proteins.5 This can cause anemia, tiredness, and trouble growing, especially in kids.5 Also, it increases the chance of issues with bones and a higher risk of osteoporosis.5

Malnutrition and Malabsorption

People with gluten intolerance might not absorb nutrients well.5 This can lead to anemia, losing weight, and slow growth in kids.5 Managing it with a strict gluten-free diet and supplements is key.5

Osteoporosis and Bone Health

Without treatment, gluten issues can make bone health worse.5 It can weaken bones and make fractures more likely.5 Watching bone health and changing diet and taking supplements are important.5

Reproductive Issues

Celiac disease may lead to issues like not getting pregnant or losing a baby.5 The exact reasons are not clear, but it might be due to not getting the right nutrients and an inflammation reaction from gluten.5 A strict gluten-free diet may help fertility and having healthy babies.5

Cancer Risk

Not following a gluten-free diet with celiac disease could up the risk of certain cancers.5 This might be due to the damage caused by the body’s reaction to gluten.5 Sticking strictly to a gluten-free life is very important to lower cancer chances.5

It’s vital to spot and manage complications from gluten intolerance.5 Working with doctors and living a gluten-free life can lower these risks and make life better.5

Gluten-Free Living

Maintaining a gluten-free lifestyle is important for those with17 gluten intolerance. They need to read food labels carefully to spot even the smallest bits of gluten. It’s also crucial to know about cross-contamination and handle dining out and traveling with care. Navigating restaurants and understanding nutritional labels is key.18

Reading Food Labels

If you’re sensitive to gluten, you must watch food labels closely. Look for foods that have less than 20 parts per million of gluten to be safe.18 Examine the ingredient list and any gluten-free symbols to make sure your purchase is free of gluten.

Cross-Contamination Awareness

Avoiding gluten isn’t enough; you must also prevent cross-contamination in your kitchen. Be careful with shared equipment and cooking areas.17 Using separate tools and thorough cleaning can stop gluten from getting into your meals accidentally.

Dining Out and Travel

For those avoiding gluten, eating out or traveling requires extra caution. Make sure the staff knows you can’t have gluten. Skip foods like pasta and bread. Finding restaurants that are gluten-free friendly and bringing your own snacks can help make these situations safer.17

Gluten-Free Food ItemsGluten-Containing Foods to Avoid
  • Fruits
  • Vegetables
  • Legumes
  • Gluten-free grains (e.g., rice, quinoa, corn)
  • Animal proteins
  • Nuts and seeds
  • Certain seasonings and condiments
  • Healthy fats and oils
  • Wheat, barley, and rye
  • Most breads and baked goods
  • Certain condiments like soy sauce
  • Wheat-based pastas
  • Some snack foods
  • Certain beverages like beer
  • Many processed foods

17 Celiac disease, wheat allergy, and NCGS are the major gluten-related conditions. For those with celiac disease and NCGS, staying entirely gluten-free is a must.18 A gluten-free diet is essential for easing symptoms of celiac disease and managing other gluten issues.18 People with celiac disease must be extremely strict with their gluten-free diet to stay healthy.

Special Considerations

Gluten intolerance can show up differently in kids and grown-ups. Kids who have [Gluten Intolerance in Children] celiac disease might see upset stomach signs. These include feeling sick, throwing up, a lot of loose bowel movements (diarrhea), and not growing as they should.19

Children and Gluten Intolerance

Celiac disease is triggered by gluten and harms kids’ small intestines.19 Also, some children might have [Gluten Intolerance in Children] gluten sensitivity. It looks like celiac disease but doesn’t show up in the usual tests.19

Dermatitis Herpetiformis

[Dermatitis Herpetiformis] Dermatitis herpetiformis is a skin condition linked with celiac disease. It can happen without any stomach issues. It causes the skin to become very itchy, with blisters full of liquid appearing.

Refractory Celiac Disease

[Refractory Celiac Disease] Sometimes, celiac disease doesn’t get better with just a gluten-free diet. It’s quite rare but serious. Those with this might need more than just giving up gluten to feel well.

Research and Emerging Treatments

The understanding of [Gluten Intolerance Research] is growing. New treatments are being looked into. They include exploring the gut microbiome and how enzyme therapies might help.

Research is also looking at other grains that can replace gluten foods.20

See also  What Causes Bloating? Reasons for Belly Discomfort

Right now, the main treatment is avoiding gluten foods. But, researchers are working on new ways to help those with gluten intolerance. They want to give more choices to control the condition. One study found that hookworms could help people eat a little gluten without getting sick. And a drug called IMU-856 had good results in treating celiac disease in early 2023.21

Another study will test latiglutenase in a big trial starting 2024. This trial is to see if it eases symptoms caused by eating gluten.21 These new treatments and ongoing studies bring hope. They promise more ways to live well for those with gluten intolerance, beyond just staying away from gluten.


Gluten22 intolerance, including celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is complex. It greatly affects health and happiness. It’s crucial to know the symptoms, causes, and how to manage it. With a gluten-free diet, the main treatment, quality of life can improve. Research is ongoing for better ways to help those with gluten issues. Individuals can better their health by knowing more and getting the right care.

These issues are on the rise worldwide, affecting about 1-2% of people. The symptoms vary, including digestive problems and issues with the brain and nerves. This is not just about celiac disease but also about non-celiac gluten sensitivity. This milder form might impact many people, based on research from across the globe.2223

Understanding and managing2223 gluten intolerance is very important. To stay healthy, it’s key to get the right diagnosis and care. A gluten-free diet and staying informed are crucial. This helps control symptoms and supports a more satisfying life.


What is gluten intolerance?

Gluten intolerance means your body doesn’t react well to gluten. Gluten is in wheat, barley, and rye. This isn’t the same as celiac disease or a wheat allergy.

What are the types of gluten-related disorders?

There are two main types. Celiac disease harms the small intestine. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity is less severe than that.

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

Celiac disease symptoms include stomach issues, tiredness, weak skin, and mental health troubles. These can be things like feeling down or anxious.

What are the symptoms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity?

Non-celiac gluten sensitivity can cause stomach problems and changes in mood like feeling blue or stressed. It might also lead to headaches.

What causes gluten intolerance?

What exactly causes gluten intolerance isn’t fully clear. It seems to involve genes and things in the environment. Things like a past of autoimmune diseases or stressful events might increase the risk.

How is gluten intolerance diagnosed?

Doctors use several tests to check for gluten intolerance. They do blood tests and look inside your gut with an endoscopy. They may also do genetic testing.

How is gluten intolerance treated?

The main treatment is cutting gluten from your diet forever. You’d have to avoid wheat, barley, and rye. You will need to check food labels properly. Sometimes, you may need to take extra vitamins.Doctors might also give you medicine. They could help you feel better and look after any other health issues.

What are the potential complications of untreated gluten intolerance?

If not treated, gluten intolerance can lead to big health issues. You might not get all the nutrients you need. This can make you very tired or affect how you grow. You could also have bone problems.It might affect how well you have children or raise the chance of getting some cancers.

How can individuals with gluten intolerance maintain a gluten-free lifestyle?

Living gluten-free means you have to watch what you eat very closely. Always check food labels. Be careful when cooking to avoid mixing with gluten foods.Choose places to eat that understand about gluten. Learn to spot labels that say a food is safe for you. Always be careful in the kitchen and when eating out or traveling.

Are there any special considerations for children with gluten intolerance?

Kids with celiac disease might feel sick a lot or not grow well. They could also have trouble with their skin, even if their stomach doesn’t hurt.In very few cases, strictly avoiding gluten might not heal their insides.

What are the latest developments in gluten intolerance research and treatment?

Experts are looking into new ways to cope with gluten intolerance. They are studying the gut bugs and possible enzyme treatments. They are also checking out grains that might be good replacements.Though a gluten-free diet is currently the best way to manage this condition, researchers are working hard to find better solutions.

Source Links