Gluten Allergy Symptoms Are Commonly Mistaken for Irritable Bowel Syndrome

If you suffer from abdominal pain, abnormal bowel movements, and other symptoms attributed to IBS, there is increasing evidence that gluten allergy symptoms may actually be to blame.

gluten allergy symptoms

For some IBS-sufferers, especially those with diarrhea as the predominant symptom, research shows that a gluten-free diet can significantly improve symptoms.

If you’re one of the millions of people suffering from abdominal pain, abnormal bowel movements, and other symptoms attributed to IBS, there is increasing evidence that gluten allergy symptoms may actually be to blame. In fact, studies around the world suggest that individuals with apparent IBS symptoms are significantly more likely to actually have what the general public typically refers to as a “gluten allergy”. This condition , however, is technically either celiac disease or gluten intolerance (also called non-celiac gluten sensitivity).[1] For some IBS-sufferers, especially those with diarrhea as the predominant symptom, research shows that a gluten-free diet can significantly improve symptoms and may even completely eliminate them.[2-3]

What is a gluten allergy?

The term “gluten allergy” is often used by non-medical professionals to refer to the situation in which ingesting gluten causes symptoms. However, rather than the existence of one single type of gluten allergy that leads to a universal set of symptoms, there is actually a whole spectrum of diseases related to gluten ingestion ranging from celiac disease to non-celiac gluten sensitivity.[4-5] Technically, neither of these is considered a true allergy. Celiac disease is an immune- autoimmune disorder.  And while non-celiac gluten sensitivity is still under intense investigation, it too is not considered an allergy. As many as 1% of the population is thought to have celiac disease, and up to 6% of the population is now thought to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. 

What is IBS?

IBS is defined as recurrent abdominal pain or discomfort for at least 3 days per month in the past 3 months that is associated with 2 or more of the following:

  • improvement with defecation
  • onset associated with a change in the frequency of stool
  • onset associated with a change in the form (appearance) of stool

In addition to abdominal pain or discomfort, patients with IBS experience irregular bowel movements with diarrhea, constipation, or a mixture of both. Most people with IBS report the onset or worsening of symptoms within 15 minutes to 3 hours after meals.

Gluten Allergy Symptoms that Mimic IBS:

  • Diarrhea
  • Bloating and distention
  • Abdominal pain

Additional Gluten Allergy Symptoms:

  • Lack of muscle coordination in arms and legs during voluntary movements, such as walking or picking up objects (ataxia)
  • Weakness, numbness and pain, usually in your hands and feet (peripheral neuropathy)
  • Leg numbness
  • Muscle, bone, or joint pain
  • Muscle cramps
  • Headache
  • Rash—eczema or dermatitis herpetiformis (itching, burning rash which blisters and scabs)
  • Chronic fatigue
  • Anemia (easy bruising and fatigue)
  • Weight loss
  • Foggy mind
  • Anxiety, social phobia, and panic disorder
  • Depression and mood disorders
  • Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)
  • Autism spectrum disorders
  • Schizophrenia (hallucinations, lack of drive/motivation, and telepathic thoughts)
  • Osteoporosis
  • Infertility
  • Autoimmune thyroid disease
  • Type 1 diabetes

Research shows how gluten-free diets treat IBS

A gluten-free diet has been found in two studies to be very helpful for people with diarrhea-predominant IBS. One was a randomized controlled trial conducted by a team of researchers from the Mayo Clinic. For 4 weeks, 45 patients with diarrhea-predominant IBS were assigned to either a gluten-containing diet or gluten-free diet. The results, published in the medical journal Gastroenterology, showed a statistically significant decrease in the frequency of bowel movements in the subjects who were on a gluten-free diet compared with subjects on a gluten-containing diet. Furthermore, the patients on the gluten-free diet had decreased intestinal permeability (leaky gut) compared to those on the gluten-containing diet who experienced increases in leaky gut over the 4-week period.

The fact that the subjects not following a gluten-free diet were found to have increased intestinal permeability/leaky gut is important to note because when the gut barrier becomes leakier, inflammation increases and you become even more sensitive to the negative effects of gluten. Furthermore, leaky gut is associated with increased likelihood of developing additional food intolerances as well as chronic fatigue and other health problems.

What to do:

If you’re suffering from IBS, especially if diarrhea is part of the picture, you may have undiagnosed celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, and a gluten-free diet may relieve you symptoms. The best way to investigate this possibility is to visit a healthcare practitioner skilled in diagnosing gluten-related disorders. While this isn’t absolutely necessary, it is recommended in case you do have positive test results for celiac disease. It’s also helpful to work with a nutritionist, dietician, or healthcare practitioner skilled in guiding you through a strict gluten elimination diet. You can find this type of integrative practitioner in your area here. However, many people also successfully go gluten-free without professional help. If you want to try eliminating gluten on your own, study carefully our article, What Foods Have Gluten?, to educate yourself on all the hidden sources of gluten and then make sure to do a very strict elimination for at least 3 months before making any decisions about its effectiveness. You may be pleasantly surprised with just how great you feel, and that relief can be long lasting.

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UHN Staff

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  • I think that almost anyone who has any kind of stomach distress issues should go on a gluten elimination diet for at least six weeks and see if that brings relief. More and more people seem to be sensitive to gluten, and that is not surprising. Our current grains have been hybridized and genetically modified so much that wheat now contains up to 40 times the gluten as grains cultivated just several decades ago. So this advice from Dr. Jade is spot on.

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