In theory, some people with arthritis may experience less joint pain on a gluten-free diet, but only a small percentage. Over the past few years, gluten has become a buzzword, leaving some afraid of gluten and others sick of hearing about it. Before writing off gluten-free diets as an empty craze or praising them as a panacea for chronic pain, stomach problems and fatigue, it’s important to have all the information.
Problems With Gluten
There are three types of conditions for which a gluten-free diet is beneficial. The most serious of these conditions is Celiac disease in which gluten sparks an inflammatory reaction in the small intestine. About 1% of the U.S. population is thought to have Celiac disease. Common symptoms are bloating and diarrhea; some people experience joint pain along with gastrointestinal distress. If untreated, Celiac can severely damage the small intestine. Because intestinal damage interferes with nutrient absorption, this can lead to an increase in your risk of osteoporosis and other health problems caused by nutrient deficiency.
A more common condition is called gluten sensitivity, believed to affect 6-7% of the population. People with gluten sensitivity experience an immune response when they eat gluten which causes inflammation, but the inflammation that results does not attack the small intestine like it does in people with Celiac. Symptoms are similar as for Celiac disease, but the risks associated with intestinal damage and nutrient deficiency aren’t present here.
Gluten allergy is rare, affecting less than 1% of the population. If you have a gluten allergy and ingest gluten, you’ll have a full-body reaction caused by the release of histamine. Common symptoms of allergies are hives, itching, wheezing and, in severe cases, anaphylaxis.
Laboratory tests can confirm or rule out Celiac disease or gluten allergy; gluten sensitivity is best confirmed by an elimination diet. If you test negative for Celiac but feel better when you avoid gluten, you’re likely gluten sensitive.
See health.usnews.com for more on the prevalence of different types of gluten issues.
Gluten Intolerance, Sensitivity and Joint Pain
The inflammation associated with both Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity can, in some people, lead to joint pain. For people with arthritis and a gluten issue, then, a gluten-free diet may be helpful. Keep in mind that only 7-8% of the population is believed to have issues with gluten, meaning that gluten-free diets are not a panacea for arthritis pain. Even if you are gluten sensitive, eliminating gluten won’t necessarily turn arthritis around, but it will likely help reduce pain.
If you test positive for Celiac disease, or find that eliminating gluten from your diet alleviates symptoms, the main thing to be careful about is getting the nutrients you would normally get from whole grains from other sources. Iron, B vitamins and fiber in particular are found in grains that contain gluten, like wheat, rye and barley. See www.webmd.com to learn more about safe gluten-free diets, and work with a dietician or nutritionist if possible.
If you have joint pain from arthritis or some unknown cause, it’s not likely that eliminating gluten from your diet will resolve it unless you also experience gastrointestinal distress, indicating a potential link between gluten and joint pain. Gluten sensitivity and intolerance are real issues, but they don’t affect most people. Equipped with the facts, you can make an informed decision as to whether gluten is a reasonable place to look for the source of your pain or not.