Celiac Disease vs. Gluten Intolerance vs. Wheat Allergy: Everything you need to know
I had an experience this past summer that has proven to be life-changing. My love of research saved my life. Let me explain.
Ever since I was a little girl I’ve had strange health issues. Gallbladder disease, osteoporosis, restless leg syndrome, sleep walking, joint pain, migraines, depression and anxiety, and constant exhaustion. That’s just the start. Most of what I’ve dealt with has been resolved or I’ve been able to live with, but back in June I got desperate to resolve my anxiety.
You see, my anxiety was all physical symptoms. I frequently felt on the edge of panic- racing heart, tenseness, racing thoughts, clammy skin, yet I wasn’t worried or anxious about anything specific. I felt certain that I had some sort of nutritional deficiency or food allergy or something that was the cause of my symptoms. To me, it seemed logical that my body was reacting to something and I just needed to find the source. I began to dig and scour the internet looking for anything that might help me. I finally, in passing, found a reference to the possibility of gluten causing anxiety. The more I learned about gluten, the more I realized I had a lot of symptoms of a gluten issue.
So, I decided to do a trial and take gluten out of my diet.
I felt terrible for about 4 days. I felt like I was going through a bit of a withdrawal/ detox– I had a terrible headache, nasty irritability and lethargy. But, on day 5, I felt better than I’d ever felt in memory. I concluded avoiding gluten really was helping me. Then, I went on vacation and got sloppy. Without really thinking I ate battered fish, a small slice of bread, and drank a beer. It made me really, really sick. For a week I felt like I was coming down with the flu, on top of a hangover, on top of being drunk. I couldn’t think straight, I felt dizzy and nauseated, my whole body hurt and I felt like I was on the verge of a panic attack. For a week!
I decided to ask my doctor to do blood work to test me for a gluten intolerance. The test results showed that I have full-blown Celiac Disease! 32 years of illness could’ve been avoided if I had known. As soon as I was diagnosed, I took my 3 sons to be tested (my daughter is too young to be tested). My 9 and 4 year olds both tested positive for gluten intolerance. My 2 year old was diagnosed with Celiac.
I cannot tell you how much of a difference removing gluten from our diets has made!My 9 year old is better able to focus, is calmer and less irritable. My 4 year old no longer has potty issues or dark circles under his eyes. My 2 year old has jumped up 30% for both height and weight on the growth chart and is now in a more normal growth pattern! We also took the baby off gluten (no more baby puffs) and the eczema on her legs disappeared. My husband went gluten-free to support the rest of us and has lost nearly 20 pounds and feels much better.
Image from positivemed.com
Celiac Disease Definition:
Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease. When gluten (more specifically, gliadin, which is one of many gluten proteins found in wheat) is ingested, the small intestine becomes inflamed and theimmune system goes into overdrive causing the body to attack the intestinal tissue. The villi that line the intestines become damaged and in turn the body is unable to properly absorb nutrients eventually leading to chronic malnutrition. It is estimated that 1 in every 133 Americans have Celiac Disease, and 97% of them don’t know it.
Typical Celiac Disease Symptoms: (there are over 300 documented symptoms)
- Lactose Intolerance
- Delayed Growth in Children (failure to thrive)
- Weight Loss due to malabsorption
- Joint Pain/Muscle Weakness
- Dermatitis Herpeteformis (a very itchy rash that resembles acne or shingles)
- Constant Fatigue
- Infertility/Repeat Miscarriages
- Frequent Bruising
- Brain Fog/Difficulty Focusing
An unusually high number of people with (often undiagnosed) Celiac Disease also suffer from:
- Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Irritable Bowel Disease
- Liver Disease
- Nerve Damage
- Thyroid Disorders
Gluten Intolerance Definition:
Also called Gluten Sensitivity, Gluten Intolerance is characterized by symptoms that are similar to Celiac Disease, without damage to the intestines. Ingestion of gluten causes inflammation in the body both inside and outside the digestive tract. An estimated 10-50% of people suffer from gluten intolerance.
Gluten Intolerance Symptoms:
- Bloating/Abdominal Discomfort
- Joint Pain/Muscle Weakness
- Brain Fog/Difficulty Focusing
- Mood Swings
Wheat Allergy Definition:
Wheat allergy is a food allergy that generates an allergy-causing antibody to any of the proteins found in wheat. Less than 1% of people have a wheat allergy.
Typical Wheat Allergy Symptoms:
- Swelling, itching or irritation of the mouth or throat
- Itching, hives, swelling of skin
- Itchy, watery eyes
- Diarrhea, cramps, nausea, vomiting
- Sinus congestion/headache/pressure
- Difficulty breathing
- Chronic “hay fever”
In severe cases, wheat allergy can cause a life-threatening anaphylactic reaction, with symptoms that can include:
- Tightness or swelling of the throat, trouble swallowing
- Chest tightness
- Severe difficulty breathing
- Unusually fast heart rate
- Pale skin
- Dizziness or fainting
- Dangerously low blood pressure
- Loss of consciousness
Removing gluten/wheat from the diet
It typically takes 3-4 months for gluten antibodies to be purged from the body. There are a lot of factors that affect this, however, such as overall health, hydration level, frequency of bowel movements, and unknown trace gluten in the diet. The good news is, that although it can take months for the antibodies to leave the body you may see improvement in symptoms within as little as 24 hours. My personal recommendation is to give it at least a month to decide if your symptoms are alleviated by a gluten/wheat-free diet.
I know it can seem overwhelming to remove gluten/wheat from your diet, so here are a few tips:
- Look for Paleo recipes. Paleo recipes are grain-free, so they are an excellent place to get ideas.
- Take advantage of Google and Pinterest. Type in “gluten-free recipes” or “wheat-free recipes” and you’ll have hundreds of ideas within seconds.
- Avoid substitutes for your favorite gluten-filled/wheat-filled foods. Sure, it’s easy to find GF/WF replacements, but they are usually full of other not-so-good-for-you starches and sweeteners. Instead of looking for yummy gluten-free bread, opt for something other than a sandwich. (Many people with a gluten intolerance or Celiac are also sensitive to other grains because of gut damage, so you’ll likely feel better sooner if you cut them out altogether temporarily- see #1.)
- If tip #3 sounds too restrictive, and you’re dying to indulge in something you shouldn’t, use those GF/WF convenience foods on a limited basis. Make sure you read labels! It is ideal to replace the gluten/wheat with whole foods. Gluten-free doesn’t automatically equate to nutritious! A gluten-free cookie isn’t health food just because it contains no gluten!
- Check out this post I wrote on my blog last year for some additional tips.
- Take a look at a few of my favorite GF/WF recipes: