Harvard Health Publications

Itching rash or tingling toes: Is gluten the cause?

Posted By Kay Cahill Allison On September 21, 2011

I love bread, pasta, and many other foods made with wheat. Luckily, I can eat them all without having to worry about gluten. But I have to admit that the growing public awareness of gluten and the problems it can cause has got me thinking.

Gluten is an umbrella term for the proteins gliadin (in wheat), secalin (in rye), and hordein (in barley). Bakers know it as the substance that makes dough resilient and stretchy. In some people, gluten triggers an immune reaction and causes inflammation of the lining of the small intestine, which can eventually interfere with the absorption of nutrients from food. This is called celiac disease. Some of the more common symptoms of celiac disease are:

  • Gas
  • Bloating
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Foul-smelling stools
  • Fatigue
  • Weight loss
  • Skin rash

Some people have no apparent symptoms or their symptoms are so subtle that they never mention them to their doctor. As a result, celiac disease may be misdiagnosed or go undiagnosed for years.

A growing number of people who don’t have celiac disease suffer many of its symptoms. They are classified as “gluten sensitive” or “gluten intolerant.” You can read more about gluten sensitivity in the free online excerpt of “Food Allergy, Intolerance, and Sensitivity,” a new Special Health Report from Harvard Health Publications.

My dad developed the tingling, painful condition known as peripheral neuropathy late in his life. The cause was never clearly identified. While researching the topic of gluten sensitivity for “Food Allergy, Intolerance, and Sensitivity,” I read a research paper in the journal Neurology that said peripheral neuropathy can be a symptom of gluten sensitivity. It made me wonder if my father’s condition was linked to an undiagnosed gluten sensitivity. Digging further into the medical literature, I saw that a wide range of seemingly unrelated symptoms can be triggered by exposure to gluten and that a gluten-free diet can sometimes be an effective remedy. In one study published in the Archives of Dermatology, dermatologists found that going gluten-free can help relieve the itchy, red skin blisters of dermatitis herpetiformis. Clearly, gluten-related symptoms this diverse are hard to pin down.

I will never know whether my Dad might have benefited from a gluten-free diet because he passed away a few years ago. But it’s good to know that at least some people are being helped by the growing awareness of the problems gluten can cause.

More complete information on food allergies and reactions, including information on diagnosing and treating gluten-related conditions, is available in the new Harvard Medical School report, “Food Allergy, Intolerance and Sensitivity.” You can read an excerpt or purchase the report at www.health.harvard.edu.

Related Information: Food Allergy, Intolerance, and Sensitivity

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