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The exact cause of the body reacting to gluten isn't known but it is thought that genetic factors play a major role in the development of these conditions. There are specific genes responsible which are prone to producing antibodies which react with gluten in the small intestines. The autoimmune reaction which occurs then manifests in the body causing it to respond in a number of ways.
Symptoms of gluten-related disorders
The following symptoms may be experienced by an individual whose body is reacting to the presence of gluten in the intestines. Anyone presenting with a combination of these issues should be seen by their primary care doctor for further assessments and referral to specialists.
- A person can experience fatigue or being tired, as well as “brain fog” after consuming a meal which contains gluten products.
- Gastrointestinal issues such as abdominal bloating, increased flatulence, diarrhoea or constipation may be experienced. Children especially are quite prone to experiencing constipation.
- Migraine-type headaches are also characteristic of this condition.
- Neurological symptoms can also be experienced. They include dizziness, lack of coordination and balance or even a tingling sensation and/or numbness in the hands and feet. Epilepsy has also been mentioned as a possible symptom, but there hasn’t been any conclusive proof of this being an actual issue.
- “Chicken skin”, otherwise known as keratosis pilaris, is a condition where a non-itchy rash of small skin coloured papules develops on the back of the arms. This occurs due to vitamin A and fatty acid deficiencies which are a result of fat not being absorbed by the small intestines due to damage caused by gluten reacting with the gut.
- In women, gynaecological issues such as hormonal imbalances, increased pre-menstrual symptoms (PMS), polycystic ovarian syndrome (PCOS) and infertility (where the cause is not determined) may be present.
- Muscle aches and pains, the cause of which can’t be explained. Patients then end up being diagnosed with conditions such as chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS) and even fibromyalgia.
- There can also be issues such as swelling, inflammation or pain of the joints such as the fingers, hips and knees. It’s important to take note here that there isn’t a specific set of joints involved, such as the weight bearing joints in osteoarthritis and the hands and wrists in rheumatoid arthritis, but rather that the involvement is generalized.
- These patients are often diagnosed with other autoimmune disorders such as ulcerative colitis, rheumatoid arthritis (RA), Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE), scleroderma and even multiple sclerosis. The symptoms of gluten-related disorders can be very similar to those caused by these mentioned autoimmune conditions, and thus it's important to do the correct tests to exclude them.
- The patient can also experience mood related conditions such as major depression and mood swings, as well as increased anxiety and even attention deficit disorder (ADD). These symptoms are collectively referred to as neuro-psychiatric manifestations of gluten-related disorders.