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Top MD: Nearly 50% of Us Have Some Type of Gluten Sensitivity and Fatigue Is a Top Symptom — How to Feel Better

How to tell if you're one of them, plus the beauty product that harbors energy-sapping gluten

By now, we’re all familiar with gluten sensitivity, a condition best known for the bloating, nausea and other GI problems it causes. But it turns out fatigue is also a top complaint. In fact, a study in the journal Alimentary Pharmacology & Therapeutics found that folks who had problems processing gluten were twice as tired as their gluten-tolerant counterparts. Tami Stackelhouse was one of them, but once she triumphed over gluten sensitivity, she bid exhaustion good-bye. Is gluten making you tired, too? Keep reading to find out how to tell — and what to do about it — and then keep reading for Tami’s story.

What is gluten sensitivity?

Gluten gets its name from the Latin word for “glue”. Found in wheat and other grains, it’s a combination of sticky proteins. But gluten sensitivity occurs in response to a specific protein known as gliadin, notes cardiologist William Davis, MD, author of Wheat Belly. “Gliadin, a component of gluten, triggers a condition called leaky gut, opening barriers between intestinal cells to allow foreign substances into the bloodstream.” That, in turn, leads to gut inflammation that impedes nutrient absorption and can trigger an overreaction from the immune system. The result: symptoms that can include GI distress, brain fog, fatigue and more.

Related: Can Leaky Gut Cause Weight Gain? Yes, But Healing May Be Easier Than You Think

And gluten sensitivity is on the rise. Mayo Clinic research suggests the number of people who develop distressing symptoms after eating gluten has increased by more that 739% over the past 30 years.

According to researchers in Annals of Nutrition and Metabolism, gluten sensitivity is most common in women age 30 to 50 years. So how is it possible that the gluten we’ve happily consumed for most of our lives suddenly causes a damaging response? “The trigger for most women is stress,” says Ann Louise Gittleman, PhD, author of The Gut Flush Plan. The chronic stress so many women experience on a day-to-day basis makes the immune system “jumpy,” she explains. As a result, it overreacts to proteins like gluten that normally wouldn’t be identified as a threat, resulting in the symptom-causing inflammatory response.

How gluten triggers tiredness

Officially, 3 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that’s characterized by adverse reactions to gluten. But this number is just the tip of the iceberg, says Gittleman. “Thanks to inflammatory factors like stress and hormonal imbalances, almost all adults are overreactive to gluten,” she maintains.  

Dr. Davis agrees: “I would argue that 100% of humans have a wheat or grain intolerance, and nearly 50% have some form of gluten sensitivity that can cause problems like irritable bowels, skin rashes, allover aches and fatigue.”

“Many people with gluten sensitivity may not have GI problems, but instead have fatigue, joint pain or neurological symptoms,” adds Harvard-trained doctor Akil Palanisamy, MD, author of The Paleovedic Diet. “Many of these symptoms overlap with and mimic fibromyalgia, which makes diagnosis difficult.” 

As Davis explained earlier, the gut damage induced by problems processing gluten can trigger tiredness. But often, there’s an additional mechanism at work. The gliadin in gluten resembles proteins found in thyroid tissue, says Kent Holtorf, MD. “When people who are sensitive to gluten eat it, the body’s immune cells target the thyroid in a case of mistaken identity,” he says. The result: impaired thyroid function and draining symptoms including fatigue, foggy thinking and weight gain.   

Is gluten making you tired?

Doctors can conduct blood tests and biopsies to diagnose celiac disease. But a tongue-check can also help determine if you’re sensitive to gluten.

 “Geographic tongue is a valuable clue for gluten sensitivity and celiac disease,” says Mary Ellen Chalmers, DMD, a functional dentist in Santa Rosa, California. The condition, which is marked by smooth red patches on the tongue’s surface, was 170% more common in patients with celiac disease in an Italian study. Researchers have yet to fully explain the connection, but they believe that, in susceptible individuals, inflammation produced in response to gluten destroys tiny hairlike protrusions on the tongue called papillae, creating the patches.

And as noted earlier, a number of other symptoms can signal you’re reacting to gluten. So if you experience the following, gluten sensitivity could be to blame:

  • Tiredness
  • Body aches
  • Headaches
  • Brain fog
  • Bloating
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation
  • Abdominal pain
  • Blue moods
  • Skin rashes
  • Weight gain

Related: Your Fatigue May Be Caused By A Food Sensitivity: Best At-Home Tests To Find Out

How to outsmart gluten’s draining impact

Currently, there are no medications that successfully treat gluten sensitivity. But in good news, a few smart steps can ease — and even eliminate — sensitivity symptoms naturally.

1. Enjoy gluten-free grains

Giving up gluten can ease tiredness in as little as one week, research in the American Journal of Gastroenterology suggests. To do: Avoid food and drinks containing wheat (including durum, spelt, semolina and faro) as well as rye, barley and triticale . Instead, opt for gluten-free options like brown rice, quinoa, amaranth, arrowroot and buckwheat (Click through to learn more about Himalayan tartary buckwheat).

To avoid stealth sources of gluten download the free Gluten Free Scanner app. And for gluten-free recipes, go to BeyondCeliac.org.

2. Add coconut oil

AshaSathees-Photography/Getty Images

Cooking with coconut oil can help repair the leaky gut linked to gluten intake. “The gut lining is largely fat-based, so repairing it takes fat,” says Dr. Palanisamy. Coconut oil helps rebuild the lining and cuts inflammation. Plus, findings published in the journal Science International suggest fatty acids in coconut oil boost thyroid function. The amount Dr. Palinasamy recommends: 1 to 2 tbs daily.

Related: How Coconut Oil Can Strengthen Hair, Reverse Thinning & More — For Pennies!

3. Consider supplements  

Proteolytic enzymes break down gluten to help you avoid symptoms if you accidentally ingest it, says Dr. Palanisamy. Look for a supplement that contains Tolerase G, an enzyme with the study-backed ability to break down gluten in the stomach. One to try: Swanson Ultra Gluten Rid with Tolerase G 100 mg; buy at Walmart, $21.75 for 90 capsules.

Also smart: Supplement with 1,000 to 2000 IU of vitamin D daily. The vitamin has been shown to reduce intestinal inflammation, says James Dowd, MD., author of The Vitamin D Cure. This improves nutrient absorption and reduces bodywide inflammation, warding off fatigue. Aim for 1,000 to 2,000 IU of vitamin D daily.

Related: If You Can’t Lose Weight and Feel Blah, You Likely Need More Vitamin D, Say MDs

4. Treat yourself to a new lipstick

Gluten can lurk in lipsticks, according to the Canadian Society of Intestinal Research. So applying lipstick, then licking your lips or eating can cause symptoms. A product can contain problematic amounts of gluten if it lists the words “hydrolyzed wheat” with protein, gluten or starch. Other indicators: It contains wheat germ extract, barley extract or hydrolyzed oat flour. For a full list of indicators and recommendations on gluten-free cosmetics, click here

Gluten sensitivity success story: Tami Stackelhouse, 49

Joshua Huston

“This is just hopeless,” Tami Stackelhouse told herself glumly, clutching the vacuum for support as she sank onto her steps, hot tears splashing rivers down her cheeks. “Company was due soon, yet crippling fatigue left me pajama-bound and unable to muster the energy to tidy up. It was time to admit that I could barely keep up with my house, let alone my job. But reflecting on the bleak prospect of applying for disability made me wonder, Will this really be my forever reality?

Tami was bone-tired 24/7

“Fatigue had been my unwelcome and constant companion for decades. Plus, I was plagued by body pain, searing headaches and flu-like symptoms,” says Tami. “I managed the support department for a software company, but staying awake and focused for those eight working hours felt like a Herculean effort. The fatigue also made it hard to wake up, so getting to work on time was a challenge, and I was reprimanded for being late. I became depressed and felt like my control was slipping away and my body was against me.

“The more I worried, the worse my symptoms got. And it wasn’t just my career that was affected; fatigue forced me to say ‘no’ to every fun invite that came my way. It hurt to miss out on making memories with my friends and family, let alone meet new people. Plus, I was living off cereal and PB&Js — survival mode was the best I could muster.


Doctors couldn’t help Tami

“As fatigue wreaked more and more havoc on my life, I was determined to find answers. I devoured books on adrenal fatigue, blood sugar and candida overgrowth, but it wasn’t until I read about fibromyalgia that all of the puzzle pieces clicked together. I described my symptoms to my doctor and asked if I might have fibromyalgia, but she quickly dismissed it, saying the real culprit was depression triggered by my job stress. She referred me to a counselor with no further discussion.

“Thankfully, I met and married my husband, Scott, during this difficult time period. Seeing the challenges I was facing at work, he urged me to quit my job and focus on my health. With new insurance, I needed a new doctor and chose one at random, but I truly believe it was God who chose her. This new doctor listened to me as I shared my symptoms, and examined my records and labs with patience. She validated my fears, confirming that I had fibromyalgia but saying it was time to get my life back. Finally, someone who can understand and help me, I thought with relief. I cried all the way home!

A new beginning

“I was on a lot of prescriptions from my other doctor, so my new doctor started rotating the meds to find a mix that would bring relief while I worked toward long-term health. Despite this, there were days when getting out of bed was a triumph. It was like my body had finally collapsed.

“Desperate to feel better, I asked my doctor what else I could do, and she suggested I meet with a health coach. So I made an appointment with Bonnie. She taught me so much and helped me realize that when I made good choices, like getting to bed early, I felt better. My mantra became: If I do what I need to do today, tomorrow will be better. I no longer admonished myself for being ‘lazy’ for resting and not working once I realized I was doing what I needed to get better.

“After just a few months of coaching, I lost 25 pounds and had so much more energy that I decided to become a health coach myself. In the process, I found I have a sensitivity to gluten and was amazed that going gluten-free significantly reduced my exhaustion and pain. After I’d been gluten-free for three months — and lost 15 more pounds! — my doctor wanted to start decreasing my meds. I had been dependent on them to remain functional for so long that the idea worried me, despite all the positive changes in my health. But she promised to take it slowly. First she took me off my antidepressant, then my sleep meds. A few months later, I went off all of my pain meds, and today I’m medication-free.

Today, Tami feels like a new person!

“Last year I won the ultimate victory when my doctor declared my fibromyalgia was in remission. I was shocked! So many doctors say there’s no cure and patients should get used to their ‘new normal.’ Today, I’m channeling all my energy into my new passion, helping women with fibromyalgia. Not only am I a certified health coach and fibromyalgia coach, but I’ve written two books (Take Back Your Life and The Fibromyalgia Coach) and host the Fibromyalgia Podcast. My life couldn’t be better!”


This content is not a substitute for professional medical advice or diagnosis. Always consult your physician before pursuing any treatment plan.

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For more tips and recipes to reduce gluten from your diet, keep reading

This Gluten-Free Ancient Grain Can Help Stabilize Blood Sugar and Lower Cholesterol

Reduce Your Blood Sugar and Improve Digestion With This Gluten-Free Flour Swap

Sweet Potato ‘Toast’ Is a Gluten-Free Bread Alternative Even Tastier Than It Looks

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