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Gluten Intolerance: The Culprit Behind Many Chronic Illnesses

2009 June 8

Do you ever find yourself feeling achy and fatigued for no apparent reason? Are you experiencing headaches, muscle and joint pain, irritability, bloating, or digestion problems? The symptoms you are experiencing may be an adverse reaction to the foods you eat. These are just a few of the many indicators of gluten intolerance, a condition gaining recognition as a contributing factor behind many chronic health issues.

wheat-bundleGluten is the complex protein found in wheat, barley, rye and some oats. For many, our bodies are unable to digest these proteins properly. That headache you experience after a meal of pasta may be an indicator that you are gluten intolerant. If you feel sleepy and lethargic after a French toast breakfast, your body may be having too hard a time trying to break down the food you are consuming.

New evidence suggests that as many as 1 in 7 are gluten sensitive, or gluten intolerant. Many chronic illnesses are associated with gluten intolerance: Fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, rheumatoid arthritis, thyroid disorder, and diabetes. It is also thought to be the cause of infertility in some women. Gluten intolerance should not be confused with the less common and more severe auto-immune disorder, Celiac Disease.

If you suspect you may have sensitivity to gluten, consider eliminating it from your diet. All gluten intolerances are easily identified by an elimination diet. Start for a period of two weeks and remove all wheat, barley and rye based foods. It is helpful to keep a fibromyalgia food mood journal during this time, and log what you eat along with any symptoms you experience. If you have intolerance, improvements may be felt in just a few days. For myself, eliminating gluten from my diet quickly lead to massive improvements in the many symptoms I experience living with Fibromyalgia.

The first thing I noticed was an increase in energy. I began feeling less fatigued and sluggish. Then I noticed my head was feeling clearer, less foggy. Eventually I also noticed my back muscles were no longer on fire with pain, and my shoulder muscles seemed less tense. The thing that cinched it for me though was the improvement with my hands. The joints in my hands had become so painful I was certain I was developing arthritis. I had a hard time gripping and opening things, my coordination was off – I dropped things often, and my hands frequently woke me up throughout the night with throbbing and aching pains. After just ten days on a gluten-free diet there was a noticeable improvement. I needed no further proof that I am gluten intolerant.

Blood tests are available to test for gluten intolerance, but it is possible to test negative and still have sensitivity to gluten. The easiest way to test if you are intolerant is to simply eliminate it from your diet. It takes a commitment, and careful food preparation, but the benefits of improved health and wellbeing far outweigh the disadvantages. And if you are worried you may miss your favorite gluten based foods too much, don’t. With growing recognition of gluten intolerance comes a growing variety of substitutes and options. Eat well, be well.

Note: This is a reprint of an article I wrote for Optimal Nutrition’s monthly newsletter.

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23 Responses leave one →
  1. June 8, 2009

    I believe it is. Great post!

  2. June 8, 2009

    Wow! We have a lot more in common than I thought! After, I read that , I was like, that sounds exactly like me! Another great blog! 🙂

  3. Kathy permalink
    June 8, 2009

    I found out I was sensitive to gluten when I was stressing out about planning my wedding. The doctor said not to bother testing for celiac…just cut out the gluten. Huh? Well, it worked. But I’d still like to know if I’m actually causing harm if I snitch a muffin.


    P.S. We’re in Monterey now…two more days and we’ll be in San Diego! Long, long drive…

  4. June 9, 2009

    If you have Celiac Disease, then yes, you are doing harm to your body when you have wheat. Also, and I found this out through a Dr and lots of reading, you are setting your body up for much disease in the future IF you have wheat and ARE a Celiac. When you have Celiac, every time you eat wheat, it really wreck havoc on your body internally , not just the things you instantly feel. It destroys the Villi in your gut.

  5. June 9, 2009

    Great post! Your blog is so well done 🙂 I have also found I feel better the less wheat I eat. Actually, I’ve found that the less ‘starchy’ food I eat, the better. That includes corn, and most other grains (except perhaps rice). Corn is a big one for many people as well, since it is very hard to digest. I would love to see you write about how to eat without wheat – what are your meals like? What substitutions do you use? It is difficult to eliminate wheat when you don’t know the specifics of what to do instead 🙂 Especially since just about everything in the grocery store contains wheat products!

  6. June 9, 2009

    Gluten is one of many sneaky things in our diet that can cause flare ups in those chronic illnesses you mention. Trying an elimination diet can help you identify it more certainly. Other ways that you can improve your symptoms through diet are making sure you get enough nutrition, stabilizing your blood sugar, and detoxifying. This was an article I found helpful on diet for chronic fatigue: Now, having the discipline to stick with it? That’s something I’m still working on!

  7. Rose permalink
    June 14, 2009

    I am living proof of all those illnesses you end up with being undiagnosed with gluten intolerance. Now 60 years of age, I finally figured out a month ago, after being chronically fatigued for the last 2 or 3 years that gluten was the culprit. After 2 days gluten free, my energy was back. Prior to that all I could do was doze in an armchair all day. I’m stuck with the diabetes, pancreatic insufficiency, and fibromyalgia, heart disease etc but hopefully the constipation will clear up although I read on the net that it could take 12 months for the bowel to return to normal after a long standing gluten intolerance. I am just grateful I found the ‘cure’ and at least feel normal mentally and energywise again.

  8. June 15, 2009

    WOW!!! That’s a great article! Pain is not an easy topic to write about. I have been wanting to explore the possible links between fibro and celiac disease…. etc… I wrote some related things at: and in other posts.
    Thanks for writing this.
    Keep up the good work.
    William Beverly

  9. Tara Hennigar permalink
    September 10, 2009

    I have been diagnosed with different diseases for the past 15 years.
    Initially they thought I had Chrones disease, now they think I have Ulcerative Colitis. The doctors just want me to stay on Asocol, which is a medication for Ulcerative Colitis, however it makes me drowsy.
    In the past I went to a naturopathic doctor, who put me on an elimination diet. My symptoms went away right away when I eliminated gluten from my diet. I also have an intolerance to lactose I found out.
    There’s a ton of food you can eat without gluten, and you’ll lose weight too (if you need to) and have way more energy!
    Thanks and keep up the good blogging!

  10. lisa permalink
    September 13, 2009

    I have been gluten -free for about 7 months now and it has dramatic effect on my health. overall i feel better and my migraines have decreased 60% and happen less frequently. i took myself off gluten so by the time i had blood test they were negative. The doctor told me i would have to go back on gluten for at last 6-9 months then they would draw more bloodwork..Forget it. I do not need bloodwork to prov what my body tells me. If i happen to get some gluten by accident I know it within a few hours.migraine,joint pain,nausea stomach pains. I am not saying gluten causes fibromyalgia as i still have flare ups but getting gluten out of my diet has been a big step for me.

  11. Sara permalink
    December 13, 2009

    I have been gluten free for 3 months now and loving the way I feel and how much energy I have!! I had been previously diagnosed with Fibromyalgia after the birth of my second son by a Family Physician and told that, “I would just have to live with it.” Needless to say, I got a second opinion from a Holistic. She pointed me in the direction of a possible gluten intolerance and suggested a trial diet for two weeks. It was a huge step & I had to totally revamp my diet. But it was totally worth it! By one month, I was 85% symptom free and three months later, I am totally symptom free…it really is amazing!

  12. tamera permalink
    February 8, 2010

    your experience is validating mine. We recently went on a church wide fast eating only fruits and vegetables for 21 days. I started to see a significant improvement in my pain level and fatigue. I put it off as that I’m coming out of my recent flare. Started to eat my regular diet again and my pain level and fatigue are rising. I’m coming to the conclusion that i am gluten-intolerant and I’m going to change my diet accordingly. Anything to lessen the fibro!!

    • fibrohaven permalink
      February 8, 2010

      How interesting Tamera. Did your entire church participate in the fast? What a great way to support each other. I am glad you were able to pinpoint your food intolerance to gluten. So many of us are gluten intolerant. I have been mostly GF for 8 months or more, and I am definitely improved. I believe changing my diet has enabled me to work again. Best of luck to you!

  13. February 12, 2010

    Our family has made a effort to reduce gluten from our diet (although its difficult to convince 2 teens to stop eating pasta, bread, and all cereal they like) but in our search we found some AMAZING gluten free muffin recipes, especially one for coconut muffins. I even altered that recipe to get toffee chocolate chip and french vanilla walnut. The kids gobble them up.

    For those with fibro you may want to research NEM which is natural eggshell membrane. Clinical trials have been done for this new supplement. You can get to the links at if you wish to research further.

  14. December 8, 2011

    Oh wow- ive been trying to self diagnose myself after years of no answers from doctors & random ailments. I’m on cymbalta for fibromyalgia/chronic pain but I really think gluten is the problem. I’m excited to try the gf diet. Thanks again!

  15. March 20, 2012

    I completely comprehend everything you have said. In fact, I browsed by way of your additional content material articles and I feel you happen to be definitely correct. Excellent job with this online site.

  16. Rhonda permalink
    April 12, 2012

    My daughter is 9 and she has had issues with her stomach for a few years we have just completed an upper and lower GI this a.m. there is not any signs of cialacs or crohns. I have found this info very helpful and this will be my next step to see if she has some relief. Thanks for your blog

  17. Maggie with the Red Hair permalink
    January 26, 2013

    Last night I had pizza. I have migraine issues with nightshade veggies, tomatoes, eggplant, etc., cheeses, wine). I also have Fibromyalgia, brain fog (age 64), BODY ACHES, bad knees (just got Euflexxor injections which helped).

    I am going to do my best to follow a gluten free diet. Fortunately, I have a good friend who has this problem and can guide me even better than I can do myself.

    I will let you know what happens in two weeks.

  18. Karen permalink
    April 20, 2013

    I was diagnosed with fibromyalgia about 14 years ago and have struggled to keep my life on track through the exhaustion and pain of massive flare ups. About a year ago I tried an eating plan that eliminates all grains, soy, corn, dairy and sweeteners from the diet for about 60 days. Afterward, I started reintroducing foods into my diet, but stayed away from processed foods and wheat-based products. A couple of months ago I moved. Having no cookware in the house, I started buying sandwiches out. Within days, I developed a weird rash on my elbows, mouth sores, got hit by aching and extreme fatigue and irritability. I didn’t put it together – there was so much on my mind – until I did an internet search on the elbow rashes and found a site linking all those symptoms to gluten sensitivity. Since then, I have stopped eating all gluten products and have been symptom free! No aching, fatigue, fuzzy head or unwarranted irritability. While traveling, I thought I could get away with a spinach wrap. Hours later, I was so fatigued I could hardly hold my head up. So, sorry for the long post, but I am so glad to finally know what was causing me so many problems and find it is not that hard to avoid gluten products. In fact, most processed grain products are very high in calories, so a good benefit is weight loss and, yes, so much more energy!

  19. Susan Carroll permalink
    October 26, 2013

    I do not have Fibromyalgia, but I experienced the kind of pain in my hands that you are describing. I thought I had carpal tunnel, because I am a pianist and a crafter. I figured I was getting older (50) and I also had arthritis. Three weeks ago my hands were so painful that if one of my children even bumped my thumbs, wrist or fingers, it brought tears to my eyes. I could no longer pick up anything and even had to ask for help opening my mascara. I happened to see a doctor who was substituting for my chiropractor while in the midst of the most terrible hand pain I ever experienced. (I had spent the day before crying for hours because the pain was so intense and I literally could not DO anything with my hands.) I had both my hands in braces to stabilize my wrists and he immediately began to focus on that. After a short examination (he is a medical internist and also a chiropractor) he was convinced that I had undiagnosed celiac disease and explained how gluten can cripple and cause neuropathy in the extremities. He advised me to get blood tests, but to not wait and go gluten-free immediately. I was in so much pain I was willing to try anything. I stopped eating gluten that day and began researching how to go about a gluten free diet. By the next day (YES, less than 24 hours) I noticed my hands were slightly less painful – but still didn’t believe the fix could be this easy. I had been living with this pain for two years. Within two days of going gluten free, my hands were in the midst of totally changing from weak and painful to a bit stronger and less pain. By the third day, 60% of the pain was gone and my hands were getting stronger – I could pick up things that I hadn’t been able to grasp for months. At this point it’s three and half weeks of being gluten free and 90% of my pain is gone and my hands are returning to normal strength. I can even play the piano again! Just wanted to share this amazing information. It’s amazing to me because I still can’t believe it!

Trackbacks and Pingbacks

  1. Balance – Or the Lack Thereof | Fibromyalgia Haven
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  3. Is it Time to Rethink the Fibromyalgia Doctor-Patient Relationship? | Fibromyalgia Haven

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