“Nizam’s Institute of Medical Sciences (NIMS) reveals over a tenth of the Indian population is grappling with gluten intolerance, predominantly observed in the northern and eastern regions of India.”
Gluten intolerance is a broad term used to describe different degrees of sensitivity to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
What is Gluten Intolerance?
Gluten intolerance, also referred to as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, is a condition characterised by adverse reactions to gluten.
Unlike celiac disease, another gluten-related disorder, gluten intolerance does not damage the small intestine.
However, its symptoms can be quite distressing and can significantly impact a person’s quality of life.
Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance
Gluten intolerance can manifest in a variety of ways, affecting multiple systems in the body.
Here’s a list of common symptoms experienced by those grappling with this condition:
- Bloating: This is a feeling of fullness or swelling in the abdomen after eating, often accompanied by discomfort.
- Diarrhea or Constipation: Gluten intolerance can disrupt normal bowel movements, leading to frequent diarrhea or constipation.
- Abdominal Pain: People with gluten intolerance often experience pain in the stomach area, especially after consuming gluten-rich foods.
- Headaches: Regular headaches or migraines can be a symptom of gluten intolerance.
- Fatigue: Feeling excessively tired or fatigued, despite getting enough rest, is another common symptom.
- Joint Pain: Gluten intolerance can cause inflammation leading to pain in the joints, such as the knees or wrists.
- Skin Rashes: Certain skin conditions, like dermatitis herpetiformis, may occur in some people with gluten intolerance.
- Mental Symptoms: These can include mood disorders such as anxiety and depression, and in some cases, ‘brain fog’ and difficulties in concentration.
Diagnosing gluten intolerance can be challenging due to its wide range of symptoms that often overlap with other conditions.
However, there are several approaches that healthcare professionals may take to identify this condition:
- Exclusion of Other Conditions: Often, gluten intolerance is a diagnosis of exclusion. This means healthcare professionals rule out other conditions with similar symptoms, such as celiac disease and wheat allergy, before diagnosing gluten intolerance.
- Blood Tests: While there’s no specific blood test to diagnose gluten intolerance, tests can be done to rule out celiac disease. These tests check for certain antibodies that are commonly elevated in individuals with celiac disease.
- Elimination Diet and Reintroduction: This is currently the most common method of diagnosing gluten intolerance. A healthcare professional may recommend an elimination diet, where the patient stops consuming all gluten-containing foods. If symptoms improve, gluten is then reintroduced to see if symptoms return.
- Genetic Testing: Genetic tests can be used to rule out celiac disease. Most people with celiac disease have one of two specific gene variants (HLA-DQ2 or HLA-DQ8). However, the absence of these genes doesn’t confirm gluten intolerance, as they are also absent in many people who tolerate gluten.
- Intestinal Biopsy: This test can also rule out celiac disease. In celiac disease, the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. An intestinal biopsy can reveal this damage.
- Patient History and Symptom Assessment: A comprehensive review of a patient’s symptoms, dietary habits, and medical history is a vital part of the diagnostic process. The physician will take note of any symptom improvements when gluten is avoided and if symptoms recur when gluten is reintroduced.
Remember, all these tests should be done under the guidance of a healthcare professional.
Self-diagnosis or self-treatment can lead to incomplete treatment and potential complications.
The Importance of a Gluten-Free Diet
For those diagnosed with gluten intolerance, adhering to a gluten-free diet is paramount.
This involves avoiding all foods and drinks that contain gluten, which can be a complex protein found in wheat, barley, rye and sometimes oats.
Adhering to a gluten-free diet can alleviate the symptoms of gluten intolerance and improve the quality of life.
Here’s a list of common foods and ingredients that are generally safe to consume in a gluten-free diet:
- Fruits and Vegetables: All fresh fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten-free.
- Meat and Fish: Fresh, unprocessed meats and fish are typically free from gluten. However, be cautious of breaded or battered versions, as these often contain gluten.
- Dairy Products: Most dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt are gluten-free, but some processed dairy products may contain gluten.
- Eggs: Eggs are naturally gluten-free.
- Beans, Legumes, and Nuts: All beans, legumes, and nuts in their natural, unprocessed form are gluten-free.
- Gluten-Free Grains: Grains such as quinoa, rice, buckwheat, tapioca, corn and cornmeal, flax, and millet are naturally gluten-free.
- Gluten-Free Flours: These can include almond flour, coconut flour, and chickpea flour, which can be used in baking and cooking.
- Oils and Vinegars: Most oils and vinegars are gluten-free, but malt vinegar is not.
Remember, processed or packaged foods can contain gluten even if their primary ingredients are gluten-free.
Always check food labels for potential gluten-containing additives, and when in doubt, consult with a healthcare professional or a dietitian.
Tips to Manage Gluten Intolerance
Living with gluten intolerance can be a challenge, but it’s far from impossible.
Here are three basic tips to help you cope:
- Learn to Read Food Labels: Not all foods labeled “gluten-free” are safe. Learn to recognise gluten-containing ingredients on food labels.
- Explore Gluten-Free Recipes: There’s a wide array of delicious gluten-free recipes available online and in cookbooks.
- Seek Professional Help: Dietitians specialised in gluten-related disorders can help you design a balanced, tasty and safe diet.
Gluten intolerance is a complex issue, but awareness and knowledge can go a long way towards easing its burden.
Understanding its nature, recognising its symptoms and learning how to manage it effectively are crucial steps towards living comfortably with this condition.
Remember, if you suspect you have gluten intolerance, consult with a healthcare provider to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.
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