Oct 7, 2022
Can You Develop Gluten Intolerance?
5 minute read
For many people, bread, pasta, and cereal are staples of a daily diet. But for others, proteins found in these foods are enough to cause extreme discomfort or even severe illness.
The culprit is a protein called gluten, which is in many foods that you might know and love. Some people are born with gluten intolerance, but is it something that you can develop over time?
Let’s look at this question and many more as we discuss everything you need to know about gluten intolerances.
What Is Gluten?
Gluten is the general term for the different types of proteins found in wheat. It’s essentially a structural protein in foods that helps them to keep their shape, holding them together.
Gluten is found in many foods, but it’s mainly found in wheat, rye, and barley. Foods that contain one or more of these ingredients include:
- Salad dressings and sauces
- Cookies, muffins, and other baked goods
- Food coloring
What Is Gluten Intolerance?
Food intolerance occurs when your body has an enhanced sensitivity to a certain type of food. In the case of gluten intolerance, sometimes referred to as wheat allergy, you’d have an increased sensitivity to food containing gluten.
It’s not really understood what causes gluten intolerance, though genetic factors are thought to play a partial role. However, it’s believed that some people do not absorb the carbohydrates found in gluten as well as they should, and thus react to gluten exposure. Instead, gluten stays within the intestinal tract and ferments, causing feelings of discomfort, at the least.
Other theories suggest that it might be due to a disorder of the intestinal tract in which the protective digestive lining does not work as well. Therefore, bacteria can seep into the bloodstream or liver and cause inflammation.
What Are the Symptoms of Gluten Intolerance?
If you suspect that you have a gluten intolerance, you’d probably experience one or more of the following common symptoms:
- Stomach pain
- Bloating or gas
- Diarrhea or constipation
- Difficulty concentrating
- Joint pain
- Skin rash
Symptoms can range from mild to severe depending on how intolerant to gluten you might be. The good news is that gluten intolerance does not pose any real risk to your overall health despite being uncomfortable to experience.
You also should always speak with your doctor before eliminating gluten from your diet. A doctor can run diagnostic tests, like blood tests, to see if gluten is what’s causing the problem. Since going gluten-free can cause other health problems down the line, you shouldn’t cut it out without the advice of a medical professional.
Gluten Intolerance vs. Celiac Disease
An intolerance to gluten is often used interchangeably with celiac disease, which is an allergic reaction to gluten. While the symptoms are nearly identical, there are some major differences between the two.
Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disorder that affects 1 in 100 people. When people with celiac eat gluten, their immune system perceives the proteins as a harmful foreign invader. As a response, the immune system attacks the small intestine.
As a result, the attacks damage a part of the intestine called the “villi,” which prompt nutrient absorption. When these are damaged, nutrients cannot be properly absorbed by the body.
In contrast, gluten intolerance is just a sensitivity to gluten that does not necessarily pose any problems to your health if left untreated. Celiac disease, however, can lead to serious complications if left untreated.
One of the main problems is malnutrition, which can occur if prolonged damage to the villi makes it hard for the intestine to absorb appropriate nutrients. This has compounding effects on the body, like anemia, loss of bone density, and even infertility.
Can You Develop a Gluten Intolerance Later in Life?
While some people are born with gluten intolerance or celiac disease, they can also spawn at any point in a person’s life. You may experience a reaction at any age from eating foods or drinking beverages that contain gluten. This can happen with almost any type of food or allergen.
You’re at a higher risk of developing a gluten allergy or intolerance if you have a first-degree relative with celiac disease. It’s highly hereditary, so if your parent or sibling has celiac, your chances of developing it are one in ten.
Unlike some intolerances or allergies, you will not be able to grow out of gluten intolerance. While it’s an ongoing problem, you can manage the symptoms and continue to lead a healthy life even in the absence of gluten-filled foods.
How Is Gluten Intolerance Treated?
Gluten intolerance and celiac disease do not have any known cure or treatment. The only true way to ensure your safety and comfort is to follow a strict gluten-free diet – especially if you are celiac.
There are plenty of nutritious and delicious foods that are naturally gluten-free, including:
- Dairy products
- Lean meats
- Nut flours
- Fish and seafood
- Legumes and nuts
You can even find gluten-free alcohol for the next time you go out for a couple of drinks. Beer and whiskey almost always have gluten, but tequila and white rum are almost always gluten-free. Time for some margaritas!
Not to mention, a gluten-free diet is becoming easier now than ever, thanks to a wide array of gluten-free foods that typically contain gluten. Gluten-free bread, cookies, pretzels, cereals, and more are almost always available at your local grocery store. Just look for labels that let you know they are gluten-free.
If you have celiac, you may become uncomfortable even if your non-gluten food is prepared alongside a food containing gluten. When you go out to eat, make sure you notify your server so that the cook can make the necessary accommodations when preparing your meal.
Are There Special Considerations for a Gluten-Free Diet?
Many products that contain gluten are also fortified with extra nutrients, vitamins, and minerals. Gluten-free products often do not have those same nutrients, so if you follow a gluten-free diet, you’ll need to work a little extra hard to make sure you’re getting the right vitamins for a healthy lifestyle.
People with celiac tend to have inadequate amounts of vitamin D, vitamin B12, magnesium, zinc, iron, calcium, and fiber in their diets. You may need to take supplements or find other foods to help cut your losses.
Additionally, going gluten-free can alter your gut biome. This can make it harder for you to digest foods properly or absorb important nutrients. Gluten-free products also tend to be higher in unhealthier refined grains and sugars.
For those reasons, gluten-free diets are only recommended for people who have a demonstrated intolerance or sensitivity that actually need them. And if you do need to follow a gluten-free diet, remember that you can still lead a long, healthy life by just making sure you’re getting the necessary nutrients elsewhere.
Gluten intolerance occurs when the body has an enhanced sensitivity to the proteins within gluten. Gluten helps food maintain its structure, and it’s found in food containing wheat, rye, or barley, such as bread, pasta, cereals, and beer.
Gluten intolerance is different from celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that destroys the intestinal linings when gluten is consumed. Although the symptoms look similar, an intolerance doesn’t actually pose a threat to your health in the same way that celiac disease does.
Anyone can develop gluten intolerance at any point in life, and it’s not something that goes away. However, you may be able to easily manage the symptoms by avoiding foods containing gluten and finding gluten-free alternatives to foods that normally contain wheat.
If you’re not sure if a food intolerance or allergy is the reason behind your discomfort, your online allergist is in and ready to help you. Take your free consultation through Cleared to get long-term relief for the most inundating allergy symptoms.
Dr. Payel Gupta
Medically reviewed by Dr. Payel Gupta
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