7 Conditions You Might Be Mistaking for Gluten Intolerance

Updated: Feb. 23, 2018

Do you blame gluten for feeling gassy, tired, or achy? You might be overlooking another health issue with similar symptoms.


What is gluten intolerance?

With all the talk of gluten-free diets, it’s easy to attribute your headaches, fatigue, and gastrointestinal issues to eating gluten: a set of glue-like proteins found in grains. One in 133 people cannot consume gluten because of celiac disease, an inherited autoimmune disorder, according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center. But only one in 56 people with celiac disease-related symptoms actually have it. It’s more likely that gluten intolerance symptoms may actually be the result of another food intolerance or digestive disorder. While some scientists have acknowledged the existence of a form of non-celiac gluten intolerance, such a disorder has not yet been widely accepted, and even the scientist who originally proposed gluten sensitivity can’t pinpoint a cause for the condition, Forbes.com reported. If you think you have a gluten sensitivity, check out the conditions below and talk to your doctor before you start cutting whole-grain carbs out of your life for no good reason. These are the 11 most common celiac disease symptoms.


First, consider getting tested to rule out celiac disease

Celiac disease symptoms include gas, bloating, weight loss, and exhaustion, according to WebMD. If one of her clients complains of one or more of these, Chicago-based registered dietitian Renee Clerkin recommends doing an official test (if they haven’t already completed one). The immune response to gluten in celiac patients produces antibodies that damage the interior of the small intestine, which affects a patient’s ability to absorb nutrients from food and can affect the risk for serious health issues if left untreated. Patients receive a blood test soon after they’ve eaten gluten to detect these antibodies; a doctor confirms a diagnosis with a biopsy to make sure the antibodies are present. If you’re diagnosed with celiac disease, the only current treatment is to stick to a completely gluten-free diet. If you’re not diagnosed with celiac disease, consider whether one of the following health problems might be to blame for gluten intolerance-like symptoms.

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Wheat allergy

If you don’t have celiac disease, it might also be a good idea to get tested for a wheat allergy, which could cause a wide variety of reactions, including inflammation, headaches, and diarrhea, according to Mayo Clinic. Gluten is often found in wheat, but it’s important to check whether it’s all wheat products, rather than just the gluten in them, to which your body might be reacting. Doctors do this through measuring levels of IgE (immunoglobulin E) antibodies in the bloodstream after consumption of wheat, which would be released were you allergic. New York-based registered dietitian Tamara Duker Freuman says wheat allergies are “exceedingly rare”—they occur in less than half a percent of adults.


FODMAP sensitivity

If you’ve confirmed you’re experiencing neither celiac disease nor a wheat allergy, your symptoms could be due to a sensitivity to other foods. Much more common than gluten intolerance is a reaction to FODMAPs: fructose, lactose, fructans, galactans, and polyols. FODMAPS, which are found in fruits, dairy, wheat, legumes, and sweeteners, are all sugars or sugar-related molecules that your body might have trouble digesting. In fact, Freuman says that many of her patients who have removed gluten from their diets and have felt better have actually been experiencing a fructan intolerance, or an intolerance for certain types of carbohydrates in wheat, garlic, and onion. When they remove the wheat in an attempt to keep gluten out of their diet, they feel better, even though it’s not the gluten that’s causing the problem at all. Testing for fructan intolerance and sensitivities to other foods is more difficult. Though you may be able to take an initial blood test, a lot of the process of narrowing down the foods you’re sensitive to will be trial and error. Consider taking these steps to see whether a FODMAP intolerance could be making you sick.


Crohn’s disease

Like celiac patients, people with Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of the lining of the digestive tract, might experience inflammation, diarrhea, and weight loss, according to Helen Rasmussen, an instructor at the Tufts University Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. If your doctor thinks you may have Crohn’s disease, he or she will complete a blood test, colonoscopy, endoscopy, or scan of your abdomen. However, Crohn’s, too, is a rare disease, affecting only 58 out of every 100,000 individuals under 20 and 241 out of every 100,000 adults over 20, according to a study published by scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in the journal Digestive Diseases and Sciences. Here are 7 common stomach pains and what they mean.


Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)

You’re more likely to have irritable bowel syndrome, marked by bloating, gas, abdominal pain, and diarrhea, than almost any of these other conditions. According to Freuman, IBS is extremely common: It affects 10 to 20 percent of the American population. IBS is usually a chronic condition that acts up when the muscle contractions in the walls of your intestines that move food from your stomach to your rectum are stronger and last longer than usual, producing abnormal gas and diarrhea. If you’re experiencing IBS symptoms, it might be time to consult your doctor about making certain dietary changes to eliminate high-gas foods and FODMAPs, taking medication, or making other lifestyle changes. You can also try these tips to relieve IBS naturally.



While gluten causes damage to the small intestine in people with celiac, colitis is inflammation of the large intestine, or colon. Like celiac disease, it can cause abdominal pain, bloating, and diarrhea, but it’s also accompanied by bloody stools, dehydration, and fever, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. If you have abdominal pain and dark-colored stools that persist no matter what you eat, a medical provider can conduct a colonoscopy or a CT or MRI scan of your abdomen to check for colitis.


Lyme disease

The fatigue, muscle aches, and headaches associated with celiac disease could also indicate Lyme disease, an infectious disease transmitted to humans primarily by ticks. Signs that it could be Lyme and not a gluten issue: the presence of a “bull’s-eye” rash that disappears after four weeks and is followed by symptoms of fatigue, chills, fever, and achiness. If you suspect Lyme disease, see a doctor right away. The earlier you can get treatment, the better. Don’t miss these tips to prevent tick bites and Lyme disease.


Cystic fibrosis

When you think of cystic fibrosis, you probably think of respiratory symptoms, but difficulty with bowel movements and weight loss can also affect CF patients. The genetic disease causes persistent lung infections, making it difficult to breathe. According to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, more than 75 percent of people with cystic fibrosis are diagnosed by age 2, so if you have it you’ve probably been experiencing lung issues for a while. Talk to your doctor if you or a child you know might have the disease to learn about treatment options.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest