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 claim gluten causes them adverse reactions (they’re referred to in the literature as“PWAWGs,” People Who Avoid Wheat and/or Gluten), 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.