What is gluten intolerance?
You may have a gluten intolerance if you get sick after eating gluten, a type of protein. You might feel tired, nauseous or bloated. Another name for gluten intolerance is non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and other grains. It’s in a lot of common foods and drinks, including pasta, cereal and beer. Gluten can also be in things like vitamins, cosmetics and even certain medications.
Are gluten intolerance and celiac disease the same thing?
Gluten intolerance and celiac disease are different. People with celiac disease have an autoimmune response to gluten. This means their bodies try to fight against gluten as if it were a virus. This reaction causes inflammation and damage to their digestive tracts. Celiac disease is the result of an abnormal gene. People with celiac disease also have high levels of certain antibodies in their blood, which are substances that fight gluten.
Gluten sensitivity and celiac disease cause a lot of the same symptoms. But people with gluten sensitivity don’t have an abnormal gene or antibodies in their blood.
Is gluten intolerance a gluten allergy?
An intolerance and a food allergy aren’t the same. A food allergy, such as a wheat allergy, is when your immune system overreacts after you eat a certain food. An allergy might cause itching, vomiting or shortness of breath. Gluten intolerance isn’t an allergy to gluten.
Who gets gluten intolerance?
Anyone can have a gluten intolerance, though it’s more common in women. Some people are born with a gluten intolerance; others develop it later in life.
How common is gluten intolerance?
Research suggests that about 6% of the U.S. population is gluten intolerant. It’s more common than celiac disease, which affects about 1% of the population.
Symptoms and Causes
What causes gluten intolerance?
The exact causes of gluten intolerance aren’t well understood. Some research shows that people may not be sensitive to gluten, but to a certain carbohydrate found in many foods. Their bodies don’t absorb the carbohydrate as they should. It stays in their guts and ferments, causing sickness.
Other research suggests that wheat might affect the lining of some people’s digestive tracts. This lining usually keeps bacteria from leaking out of your intestines. But in people with a gluten intolerance, the lining may not work as it should, allowing bacteria into their blood or liver and causing inflammation.
What are the symptoms of gluten intolerance?
People may experience the following symptoms for several hours or days after they consume gluten:
- Abdominal pain.
- Bloating or gas.
- Brain fog, or trouble concentrating.
- Diarrhea or constipation.
- Joint pain.
- Nausea and vomiting.
- Skin rash.
Many people with gluten intolerance also have irritable bowel syndrome (IBS).
Diagnosis and Tests
How is gluten intolerance diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider carefully reviews your symptoms and medical history. If they suspect you have a gluten intolerance, these are the next steps to confirm the diagnosis:
- Step 1: You eat a diet containing gluten for about six weeks. During this time, your healthcare provider performs blood tests and skin tests to rule out a wheat allergy or celiac disease. There isn’t a gluten intolerance test.
- Step 2: If you don’t have a wheat allergy or celiac disease, your healthcare provider will ask you to exclude gluten from your diet for at least six weeks. Keep a thorough record of your symptoms during this time, noting which (if any) symptoms improve.
- Step 3: If your symptoms do improve while you’re on a gluten-free diet, you gradually reintroduce gluten back into your diet. If symptoms return, you likely have a gluten intolerance.
Management and Treatment
How is gluten intolerance treated?
There’s no cure for gluten intolerance. But most people find relief from symptoms by following a gluten-free diet. You should work with your healthcare provider and a dietitian to plan your diet.
You can also ask your healthcare provider about adding probiotics to your diet. Probiotics help increase the good bacteria in your gut. They may reduce symptoms of bloating, gas or constipation.
Some research suggests that taking certain enzymes may help you digest gluten. But experts are still investigating this treatment. Talk to your healthcare provider before taking any enzymes.
Does a gluten-free diet have health risks?
Research shows that a gluten-free diet may increase your risk of:
How can I prevent gluten intolerance?
There’s no way to prevent gluten intolerance, but there are ways to reduce the symptoms. Talk to your healthcare provider about a treatment plan that works for you.
Outlook / Prognosis
What is the outlook for gluten intolerance?
Most people with gluten intolerance find relief from symptoms with the right diet. It usually requires lifelong management. Symptoms tend to return if you start consuming gluten again.
How can I make living with a gluten intolerance easier?
You can manage gluten intolerance by:
- Eating a low-fat, high-fiber diet.
- Getting regular lab tests to check for:
- High cholesterol.
- Vitamin and nutritional deficiencies.
- Learning which foods, drinks and ingredients contain gluten so you can avoid them.
- Reading food and beverage labels carefully.
Frequently Asked Questions
What should I do if I’m exposed to gluten?
Gluten is in countless foods, drinks and other products. Even if you stick to a gluten-free diet, you might accidentally eat gluten at some point. If you experience side effects from accidental gluten exposure, you can:
- Drink plenty of water to flush out your system.
- Eat small meals that aren’t spicy or fatty.
- Try ginger or peppermint tea to soothe an upset stomach.
When should I call my doctor?
Some symptoms of gluten exposure can be severe. Seek medical attention if you experience diarrhea or vomiting. Dehydration can lead to dangerous electrolyte imbalances.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Gluten intolerance may make you feel sick after eating gluten. You might get bloated, nauseous or gassy. Gluten intolerance causes a lot of the same symptoms as celiac disease, but it’s not the same condition. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that leads to damage to the digestive tract. People with gluten intolerance usually find relief from their symptoms by following a gluten-free diet. Gluten-free diets do have some health risks. It’s important to work with your healthcare provider and a dietitian to build the right treatment plan for your needs.
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