Celiac.com 10/19/2009 - Gluten intolerance in the form of celiac disease (a hereditary autoimmune disorder) or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, may affect virtually any part of the body. In it’s involvement in multiple health disorders, gluten intolerance is a major driver of health care delivery and associated costs. While this may seem to be an outrageous claim to make, a discussion of the many ways in which gluten intolerance can negatively affect the body can illustrate this point. So, let’s work our way down from the top…
Normal, healthy hair is usually glossy and thick. An autoimmune disorder known as alopecia areata results in abnormal loss of hair, either in patches, or total body hair-loss, and is one of many autoimmune disorders associated with celiac disease. Malabsorption severe enough to cause malnutrition can also result in thin, sparse, fragile hair. One of the outward signs of hypothyroidism is thinning hair and a loss of the outer third of the eyebrow; hypothyroidism is strongly associated with celiac disease.
Now let’s look at the brain. There are, unfortunately, a large number of neurological disorders associated with gluten intolerance and celiac disease, including narcolepsy, depression, ADD/ADHD, Autism Spectrum Disorders, and schizophrenia. There are also movement and balance disorders associated with gluten intolerance, including ataxia - the inability to coordinate movements and balance (gluten ataxia, celiac ataxia, some cases of sporadic idiopathic ataxia). In some cases, when symptoms are severe, this disorder mimics other disorders such as Parkinson’s, Normal Pressure Hydrocephalus, and even Alzheimer’s disease.
Headaches are a very common symptom of wheat allergy, as well as gluten intolerance. Migraines are common in those with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, as are sinus headaches. These symptoms often decline dramatically after excluding gluten grains from the diet. Sinus problems are common in those with celiac disease, gluten intolerance, and sensitivity to dairy products as well, and are often reversible by making dietary changes. Some people with celiac disease seem to have an altered, highly acute sense of smell – for unknown reasons.
Night blindness associated with vitamin A deficiency is reversible when malabsorption is resolved and with the addition of a vitamin A supplement. Xeropthalmia, or chronic, often severe, dry eyes, is also related to severe vitamin A deficiency. It is rare in developed countries, but can be found in some people with malnutrition due to celiac disease.
Apthous stomatitis is the name for the mouth ulcers associated with food allergies and intolerances, and is strongly associated with celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Even people who do not have gluten sensitivity get these once in a while but in those with gluten intolerance they are more frequent and especially long-lasting. Dental enamel defects are strongly associated with celiac disease. While they are usually identified in childhood, they can continue to cause problems throughout life, because they often lead to more frequent dental cavities. Halitosis, or bad breath, is a reflection of our internal environment and gastrointestinal health, and is often present in those with untreated celiac disease, gluten sensitivity, or gut dysbiosis – an upset in the balance of our internal microorganisms caused by poor diet and other factors. And, one of the autoimmune disorders strongly associated with celiac disease, and one of the most prevalent is Sjogren’s syndrome, which impairs the normal production of body fluids like tears, saliva, and vaginal secretions
Following the path our food takes to the stomach, we can look for effects in the esophagus too. Eosinophilic esophagitis is a rarely encountered inflammation in the tissue of the esophagus which makes swallowing painful and difficult and can result in bleeding ulcerations. When doctors do see it, they sometimes test for celiac disease, since there is a strong correlation. Fortunately, in cases where this condition is caused by gluten intolerance, this painful chronic disorder clears up on a gluten free diet, too.
Now we’re getting to the area most people associate with gluten intolerance – the gastro-intestinal system. In the past, celiac disease was usually described as causing gas, diarrhea, bloating, discomfort, cramping, and malabsorption. But as you’ve already seen above, there is a whole lot more to this disorder, and we’re only halfway to the toes.
In addition to the above symptoms, the body’s reaction to gluten can cause inflammation anywhere, but a common location is in the illeo-cecal junction and the cecum. This can sometimes be confused with appendicitis, or ovarian pain or an ovarian cyst in women experiencing right-sided lower abdominal discomfort. Irritable bowel syndrome is suspected to affect at least 10-15% of adults (estimates vary). It is differentiated from IBD, or inflammatory bowel disorders (which include Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis). But, taken together, there are an awful lot of people out there with uncomfortable gut issues. One fact to consider is that many of those with celiac disease were previously, and wrongly, misdiagnosed with IBS before discovering they actually had celiac disease.
Let’s take a look at the urological system. Even though gluten from the food we eat isn’t directly processed here, can it still be affected? The answer is yes. Kidney problems in association with celiac disease are well documented, including oxalate kidney stones. Bladder problems are increasingly shown to be responsive to a gluten-free diet. This is kind of my specialty and I would estimate that about a quarter of those with interstitial cystitis, and many people with recurrent urinary tract infections, have a sensitivity to gluten. Even prostate inflammation in some men can be triggered by eating gluten grains.
Sitting just atop the kidneys are our adrenal glands. They have a difficult job, helping to direct our stress response system, our immune system, and our hormone output, and controlling inflammation in the body. Every time we experience a reaction to gluten, and our adrenals respond by sending out a surge of cortisol to help control inflammation, we are depleting our adrenal reserve. When this happens chronically, over time, our adrenal system cannot keep up and becomes fatigued. Symptoms of adrenal fatigue have far-reaching consequences throughout the body, including, of course, feeling fatigued and run down. But, adrenal fatigue can also affect our hormones, our blood sugar regulation, our mental acuity, our temperature regulation, and our ability to cope with food allergies, environmental allergies, and infections.
Can the liver, the body’s largest internal organ, be affected by gluten intolerance too? One example is autoimmune hepatitis, in which can be untreated celiac disease can be found in large numbers. Early screening testing for celiac disease is now strongly recommended for patients diagnosed with autoimmune hepatitis.
The pancreas, which is key in blood sugar regulation, is highly affected by gluten intolerance. Autoimmune disease triggers the development of Type I DM, and is becoming more closely associated with celiac disease. Testing for celiac disease is now becoming a routine part of examination when a child develops Type I DM, and now that physicians are looking for celiac disease in juvenile diabetes, they’re finding it with greater frequency. Blood sugar regulation problems are also associated with non-diabetes hypoglycemia in those affected by gluten intolerance and appear to resolve with a low-glycemic gluten free diet.
So, we’ve covered most of the body’s major internal systems. Now, let’s look at the extremities, our upper and lower limbs, where gluten-associated problems are also found. Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, a collagen disorder resulting in shoulder, elbow, and wrist joints that dislocate easily (and other characteristics) is a genetic disorder that may also be associated with celiac disease. I had mild symptoms of this disorder as a child, but never knew it had a name until I ran across it recently. With a child who has this disorder, a simple game of swinging a child by the arms, or swinging a child between two sets of their parent’s arms, can result in a trip to the emergency to put their joints back into proper alignment. This is not to say that a reaction to gluten causes this genetic disorder, but that if you have a personal or family history of Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and symptoms that may be related to celiac disease, you should consider being tested.
Rheumatoid arthritis is another of the autoimmune disorders associated with celiac disease, and often affects the fingers with crippling joint deformation. Other joints in the body can also be affected. Scleroderma is another terribly disfiguring and sometimes fatal autoimmune disorder affecting every part of the body. It is often first identified in the extremities, particularly the fingers. In scleroderma, normal tissue loses it’s flexibility as the body’s autoimmune response produces inflammation and an overproduction of collagen. Collagen is the tough fibrous protein that helps form connective tissues including tendons, bones, and ligaments. Excess collagen is deposited in the skin and body organs, eventually causing loss of function. Scleroderma can be associated with celiac disease.
The arms and legs are also common spots for yet another autoimmune disorder, psoriasis, to develop. Some patients with psoriasis are responsive to a gluten-free diet, but unfortunately, not everyone. Another skin condition that often shows up on the arms is dermatitis herpetiformis (DH), although this itchy blistering skin rash can occur in other places as well. Common sites are the backs of the elbows and the backs of the knees, or on the lower legs.
Peripheral neuropathy is a disorder that results in numbness, tingling, and sometimes severe nerve pain in the extremities. Finger, hands, toes, feet, and lower legs may all be affected. Although usually associated with diabetes, peripheral neuropathy shows up fairly frequently in those with celiac disease, and is fortunately reversible on a gluten free diet supplemented by B-vitamins and some specific amino acids. Peripheral neuropathy is usually associated with older people, but some of the cases I’ve observed recently have been in very young children who had severe malabsorption issues. Fortunately they healed quickly and their neuropathy symptoms resolved completely.
There a few last symptoms related to malabsorption that tend to show up in those with celiac disease or gluten intolerance. Easy bruising and bleeding, either due to a deficiency of Vitamin K, or to an autoimmune platelet disorder, is one. Rickets, or osteomalacia – a softening of the bones in the legs related to vitamin D deficiency – is another. As we said before, inflammation goes along with celiac disease and gluten intolerance, and a common site for inflammation is the lower extremities. Sometimes this can be profound, and trigger doctors to think heart disease, but it’s often unresponsive to Lasix and other diuretics. This condition, too, may also clear up on a gluten-free diet.
As for me, I’ll be happy to be gluten-free, from head to toe.