So you’re feeling tired and headachy, and your digestive system is off (and has been for what seems like forever). Maybe you have some other symptoms: a rash, dandruff, a feeling that you’re operating in a depressed and disorganized manner, or are just in a fog. And maybe you’ve been trying to get pregnant, but it’s not working … and you have no idea why.
You’ve heard about gluten and know that lots of people are going gluten-free, and you start to wonder: Could I have a gluten allergy, too?
Well, maybe. There are actually five different kinds of gluten allergies, and each has its own set of signs and symptoms. Still, there’s plenty of overlap between these five conditions, and many of their symptoms involve the types of sometimes-vague problems listed above: digestive issues, skin issues and neurological issues.
Of course, not everyone with these symptoms will have a gluten allergy — there are plenty of other possible causes for each. But the possibility is worth considering if you and your physician can’t identify other potential reasons for your problems. Suffering from one or more of these nine signs could indicate that you may have a gluten allergy and should have some testing done, or that you should talk to your doctor about a trial of the gluten-free diet.
Read on for the details on nine signs that may indicate you have a gluten allergy:
1. Dysfunctional Digestion
Not everyone with a gluten-related issue suffers from digestive problems, but enough people do have this issue to make it number one on our list.
These “problems” can involve diarrhea, constipation, reflux or simply abdominal pain, and they’re frequently seen when you have one of the two most common types of gluten allergy: celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
In some cases, people who’ve been diagnosed with irritable bowel syndrome actually have a form of gluten allergy, and when they stop eating gluten, their IBS diminishes or goes away entirely.
Do you need to have digestive symptoms to have a gluten allergy? Nope, not at all — in fact, lots of people have one of the other issues on our list as their primary symptom, and report having cast iron stomachs. But if you do have dysfunctional digestion, it’s possible that gluten is the cause.
2. Intractable Dandruff
Do you methodically avoid dark tops? Is your go-to shampoo Head & Shoulders (or something medicated and smelly that contains coal tar)? You probably think you have a dandruff problem, but you may in fact have a gluten allergy problem instead.
There’s less research available to confirm a link between gluten sensitivity (another type of gluten allergy) and eczema, but anecdotal evidence indicates there may be one as well.
Finally, at least one study has linked chronic eczema (on your scalp or elsewhere) with wheat allergy, yet a third form of gluten allergy.
Not all dandruff stems from seborrheic dermatitis/eczema — some cases actually involve psoriasis, an autoimmune condition that also shares connections with celiac disease and gluten sensitivity. Psoriasis on your scalp looks very much like seborrheic dermatitis, but if you have psoriasis, you’ll probably also have it elsewhere on your body, too.
Still, regardless of the specific condition involved, many people who go gluten-free to help digestive or other issues actually find their dandruff subsiding — a welcome bonus if you’ve suffered with those unsightly white flakes for most of your life.
3. Itchy, Scratchy Rash
Dandruff (in the form of eczema or psoriasis) isn’t the only skin condition you can get when you have a gluten allergy. People with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity are prone to various forms of skin rashes, too.
Perhaps the best known (and itchiest, and most miserable) of these rashes is an autoimmune skin condition known as dermatitis herpetiformis, or “DH” for short. DH (one of our five different types of gluten allergy) occurs in conjunction with celiac disease — up to 25% of celiacs also have this rash.
People with dermatitis herpetiformis often scratch their skin until it’s raw — yes, it’sthat itchy.
Two other forms of rash, keratosis pilaris(“chicken skin”) and chronic urticaria (hives), seem to occur more often in people with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity as well, but there’s little or no evidence from medical research to back up those anecdotal reports.
Obviously, not every rash is caused by gluten (heat rash or chicken pox, anyone? poison ivy, even?). But if you’ve got red bumps that just won’t go away no matter what you do, you might want to consider your diet as a possible cause.
4. Foggy Brain
Do you feel stupid and sluggish? Do you find yourself forgetting to finish important tasks (or just to pick up your dry cleaning … or your kid at school)? Does your brain feel as if it’s operating in a perpetual fog?
You might have brain fog as a result of your gluten allergy.
Having a foggy brain means you tend to have difficulty concentrating, or experience short-term memory lapses. You may also find yourself losing your train of thought in conversations or when writing, and you might sometimes become confused or disoriented.
Brain fog is a top symptom in three of the five different types of gluten allergies — people with celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity and gluten ataxia all report varying degrees of brain fog. Since people with another form of gluten allergy,dermatitis herpetiformis, almost always also have celiac disease as well, you can actually count brain fog as a symptom in four out of the five gluten allergy types.
Having brain fog doesn’t guarantee you have a form of gluten allergy — there are a slew of other conditions that include brain fog as a symptom, including fibromyalgia and chronic fatigue syndrome. But if you do have brain fog (potentially combined with some of our other eight signs), you might want to consider getting some testing for a gluten-related disorder.
5. Pounding Headaches
Most people get headaches every now and then. But people with gluten allergies — especially those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, and to a lesser extent, those with celiac disease — seem to be especially prone to them, and some even seem to get migraines that are triggered by gluten.
Research presented by Columbia University clinicians at the 2012 American Academy of Neurology meeting found that 56% of people with gluten sensitivity, and 30% of those with celiac disease, suffered from chronic headaches compared to 14% of people in the control group. About 23% of those with inflammatory bowel disease also reported chronic headaches.
When the researchers looked specifically for people who suffered from migraine headaches — severe headaches that can be disabling — they found migraines occurred in 21% of celiacs and 14% of those with inflammatory bowel disease.
That research hasn’t been published yet, but it jibes well with other studies on celiac disease and anecdotal reports from researchers in the field of gluten sensitivity. And it’s accepted that food can trigger headaches and migraines in those who are susceptible, making it logical to add gluten to the list of triggers.
6. Pins and Needles
It’s pretty common to have your foot or hand “fall asleep” every once in a while, but people who suffer from gluten allergies may have permanent “pins and needles” in their arms, legs or feet.
This pins and needles problem is known as peripheral neuropathy (literally, nerve damage in your periphery, or limbs). When you have peripheral neuropathy, you may suffer from constant pain and tingling in your extremities, or even numbness as the nerve damage progresses.
Peripheral neuropathy occurs in up to one in 10 people with the celiac disease form of gluten allergy, and in the vast majority of those with the gluten ataxia. It’s not clear how many people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity also have peripheral neuropathy, but physicians treating people with this condition report it’s quite common there, too.
Simply having your foot fall asleep occasionally doesn’t mean you have a gluten allergy. And peripheral neuropathy actually is quite common — it’s closely associated with diabetes, and at least one study shows upwards of 26% of diabetics (both type 1 and type 2) suffer from painful peripheral neuropathy. It can also be caused by injuries, kidney disorders and vitamin deficiencies, among other conditions.
But if you don’t have another potential explanation for your peripheral neuropathy, you might want to talk with your doctor about whether it could be caused by gluten. Nerve damage can be difficult to heal, but some studies (not all) indicate that you may be able to slow or stop the damage by following a gluten-free diet.
7. Attention-Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder
Between 3% and 7% of children have been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder in the United States, so the odds are quite good that you or someone you know is being treated for this common neurobehavioral disorder. But could a gluten allergy contribute to your symptoms? If so, could the gluten-free diet help curb your symptoms?
Studies show that people with newly diagnosed celiac disease are more likely than average to suffer from symptoms of ADHD, and those symptoms tend to improve or disappear entirely once the person begins eating gluten-free.
It’s less clear whether people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity might have ADHD symptoms that are relieved by the gluten-free diet — medical research hasn’t resolved that question. Many parents report success when they remove gluten from their ADHD-diagnosed childrens’ diets, regardless of what research has (or hasn’t) yet shown. But this effect could simply be due to the elimination of highly-sugared, un-nutritious processed foods, the majority of which happen to have gluten in them.
The bottom line: going gluten-free will probably help your ADHD if you have celiac disease, and it may help your symptoms if you have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (or possibly another form of gluten allergy). Although the use of diet to treat ADHD is controversial (and some recent studies haven’t shown a benefit), it might be worth talking to your doctor about whether eliminating gluten could help.
8. Depression, Anxiety and Irritability
Nearly one in 10 adults report depression, and nearly one in 20 say they have major depression. Even more — about 18% of the overall U.S. population — have an anxiety disorder. And of course many of us get irritable from time to time (or even more frequently). But is any of this linked to the different forms of gluten allergy?
Lots of studies have found links between celiac disease, depression, and anxiety, both in adults and in teens. There may also be links between these conditions and gluten ataxia, a neurological gluten allergy primarily involving loss of motor skills.
And people who have non-celiac gluten sensitivity also report depression and anxiety levels that seem to be higher than those in the general population, although as of yet there’s no scientific research to back up those observations.
As far as irritability goes, one of the key celiac disease symptoms in children — especially infants and very young children — is irritability (hey, you’d be irritable too if your stomach hurt all the time!). And older gluten-free kids, along with gluten-free adults, definitely report noticing they become irritable when they get glutened. (In fact, some people report that their families can tell they’ve been glutened even before they know themselves, just from a sudden, noticeable increase in snappiness.)
So what does all this mean? Well, as with the other health problems on our list of gluten allergy signs, it may not mean anything. But if you do suffer from depression, anxiety and/or irritability, it can’t hurt to talk with your doctor about whether one of the types of gluten allergy could be to blame.
9. Infertility and Trouble Conceiving
Both women and men who’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease are known to struggle with infertility. It’s possible that celiac-associated malnutrition may play some role in this struggle, but doctors aren’t entirely sure what actually causes infertility in people with celiac disease.
When it comes to non-celiac gluten sensitivity, the picture’s even more murky: even though some practitioners believe they’re connected, there just simply hasn’t been any medical research on this form of gluten allergy and infertility.
The good news: if you’re diagnosed with celiac disease, going gluten-free may help you conceive: studies have shown that the gluten-free diet helps with fertility in both men and women.
There hasn’t been any research on other forms of gluten allergy and infertility. Still, some people with non-celiac gluten sensitivity report that the gluten-free diet seems to have helped them conceive as well. In any event, it’s certainly worth discussing the possibility with your OB-GYN.
So you’ve scrolled through all nine signs of gluten allergy, and it rings true — really true. You’re thinking: yup, this is me. This is definitely me. I must have a gluten allergy!
Not so fast. As I said before, all these signs and symptoms could be caused by something else. What you need right now is testing to see if you actually do suffer from one of the five forms of gluten allergy.
What’s Involved in Gluten Allergy Testing?
First, you should see your doctor to talk about your symptoms and family history (celiac disease is definitely genetic). Your doctor may recommend you be tested for celiac disease, and to do that, you’ll need to keep eating gluten until all your testing is complete.
If you have a rash that looks like these dermatitis herpetiformis photos, you may want to see a dermatologist as well — she can test the rash to see if it is really caused by gluten.
Diagnosing gluten ataxia is less straightforward, and some neurologists haven’t accepted the condition. If you test negative for celiac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis but have symptoms of gluten ataxia, your physician may recommend you try the gluten-free diet to see if your symptoms improve.
Finally, there’s no accepted diagnostic test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity (although researchers are working to develop one). So at the moment, it’s a diagnosis of exclusion, which means your doctor will exclude other possible conditions (including celiac disease) before considering gluten sensitivity.
The ultimate test for all these types of gluten allergies will be your response to the gluten-free diet: if your symptoms clear up, that’s a pretty good indicator that gluten is a problem for you.