If you often feel ill after eating foods containing wheat, barley or rye, you could be suffering from gluten intolerance (also known as gluten sensitivity).

While around 1% of people in the UK suffer from coeliac disease, gluten intolerance is estimated to be much more common. The difference between gluten intolerance and coeliac disease is that the latter is an autoimmune disease, and can result in damage to the lining of the gut and malnutrition. Gluten intolerance is less serious, but symptoms can still be very unpleasant and affect your quality of life.

Gluten intolerance symptoms

Intolerance can affect everyone in different ways, but common symptoms include:

  • Bloating, gas and stomach ache
  • Constipation or diarrhoea
  • Skin rashes or eczema
  • Exhaustion, dizziness or headaches after eating
  • Some have reported depression and aching joints

Symptoms usually develop a few hours or days after eating gluten and, according to the NHS and Allergy UK, are sometimes not triggered by 'trace' amounts of gluten (unlike coeliac disease or a wheat allergy).

Gluten intolerance diagnosis

You may find it helpful to keep a food diary for a few months, noting when symptoms occur and seeing if there is a pattern. If you believe the symptoms are triggered by gluten, it's important to rule out the possibility that it's coeliac disease. Your GP will conduct a blood test, looking for antibodies that are a telltale sign of the disease; the diagnosis will then be confirmed with a gut biopsy to look for signs of damage. See our coeliac disease diagnosis FAQ for more information.

Unfortunately there is currently no medical test to diagnose non-coeliac gluten intolerance or sensitivity. The most reliable way of diagnosing it is by following an elimination diet – cutting out gluten from your diet for around four weeks and seeing if you feel any better, again using a food diary for accuracy.

Remember, there are many foods other than gluten that are common causes of intolerance and sensitivity, such as dairy, eggs, alcohol, caffeine and yeast; and of course, some people suffer from more than one food intolerance, which makes it very difficult to diagnose. Your GP may be able to refer you to a dietician for assistance in diagnosing gluten intolerance, and you should always seek medical advice if you are concerned your child might be sensitive to gluten.

Treatment of gluten intolerance and sensitivity

If your elimination tests suggest that you are gluten intolerant, the best way to avoid experiencing symptoms in future is to stick to a gluten free diet. This means carefully reading the labels on any products you buy, and replacing your normal bread, pasta, breakfast cereal and so on with a gluten free alternative.

Following a gluten intolerance diet may seem daunting at first, but the relief of all those symptoms might just give you a new lease of life. What's more, there are so many delicious foods you can still enjoy, you won't look back – check out our gluten free recipes page for some fresh ideas.