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The Gluten and Fibromyalgia Symptoms Connection

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As I’ve worked with fibromyalgia patients over the years, some questions I’m frequently asked include:

  • What’s the best fibromyalgia diet?
  • Are there specific foods to avoid with fibromyalgia?
  • Is there really a connection between fibromyalgia and gluten?

Although gluten may not cause fibromyalgia, it can definitely make the symptoms of fibromyalgia significantly worse. Therefore, an important component of a health fibromyalgia diet should include avoiding foods that contain gluten.

In my personal experience, 100% of the people I’ve worked with

who have fibromyalgia also have a sensitivity to gluten.

Does that statement shock you? Well hold on to your hat. Even if you feel you’ve read it all, please be sure to read this entire article because I’m going to share some additional information about gluten that will very likely surprise you––and just may make a big difference in your fibromyalgia symptoms.

What Does Gluten Have to Do with Fibromyalgia Symptoms?

But let’s start with the basics––some of which you may already know:

  • Gluten is a sticky, glue-like protein found mainly in wheat, barley and rye, as well as in oats and other grains due to cross-contamination. Refer to this useful “Unsafe Ingredients List” from Celiac.com for a detailed listing of where gluten may be hiding in your foods. If you read labels at all, you’ll quickly notice that wheat is in just about everything! (Helpful Tip: If the label says “flour” and does not specify a known gluten-free variety, then it’s safest to assume that it comes from wheat.)
  • Our modern wheat grain is not the same – genetically – as wheat that was produced even just a few decades ago.
  • This modern wheat, according to Dr. Davis, author of Wheat Belly, has the capacity to raise blood sugar at an alarming rate. In fact, according to an Australian university study, two slices of whole wheat bread can produce a more pronounced blood-sugar spike than six tablespoons of pure table sugar.
  • Dr. Davis also points out that the protein components of wheat have a direct impact on hunger levels. gluten actually activates hunger hormones, which increases hunger and carb cravings.
  • When gluten is consumed by those who are sensitive, the immune system responds by attacking the small intestine. This affects the body’s ability to absorb and process nutrients.
  • Furthermore, because the lining of the small intestine has been compromised, small particles of “food” can permeate through the damaged walls of the digestive system (a.k.a. Leaky Gut Syndrome). This can lead to an autoimmune response bringing on a cascade of additional problematic symptoms.
  • Currently, the main diagnostic resource available for Celiac disease is a blood test. This is most commonly used by mainstream traditional medical professionals. Accuracy varies widely.
  • If related antibodies appear in your blood test results, you’re likely to receive a diagnosis of Celiac disease.
  • There’s a difference between having Celiac disease and being gluten sensitive or intolerant.
  • gluten is connected to weight management issues since it’s one of the leading causes of whole body inflammation.

Now that you’ve read an overview of the impact that gluten has on both the body and the diet, it’s time to address what this means for those of us with fibromyalgia.

Gluten fuels whole-body inflammation.

Here are just a few of the symptoms linked to the issue of inflammation:

  • Digestive imbalances including constipation and/or diarrhea
  • Gassiness/bloating
  • Significant fatigue
  • Adrenal challenges including anxiety and sleep concerns
  • Cognitive impairments including foggy-thinking
  • Inability to maintain a healthy weight
  • Whole body pain
  • Headaches and/or migraines
  • Tendency toward yeast infections and yeast/candida overgrowth
  • Acid reflux/GERD
  • And more…

Do you find the symptoms listed above to be incredibly familiar? If you have fibromyalgia, you likely have concerns with many, if not all, of these symptoms. The point is to show how similar the symptoms of whole-body inflammation are with those of fibromyalgia.

Inflammation isn’t the whole cause of fibromyalgia, per se, but by reducing whole-body inflammation––and its sources—the intensity of fibromyalgia symptoms can be greatly reduced.

My Personal Experience with Fibromyalgia and Gluten

I have my own personal recovery story with gluten which is nothing short of miraculous. When I first significantly changed my diet, I only knew that I was frustrated with my overall, never-ending, ever-increasing pain. Maybe you can relate? I just wanted it to stop!

After dozens of visits, when my doctor suggested that my high cholesterol levels were the source of my pain, I knew something was wonky. It just didn’t make sense to me. That was my own personal straw-that-broke-the-camel’s-back moment.

I had to try something different.

I’d read that changing to a healthier, more natural food nutrition plan could be helpful and healing. But I didn’t believe a word of it. I tried it anyway, but didn’t do so with the intention to heal. I did it to show my doctor that I could lower my cholesterol on my own––and still have the same pain levels. I wanted to prove that nutrition didn’t work!

I jumped with both feet into a completely different nutrition plan that seemed incredibly radical at the time. Way back then, I’d never heard of diets that were gluten-free, dairy-free, grain-free, or processed foods-free. At that time, my idea of “eating healthy” was to switch from regular cookies to SnackWells. What did I know? I’d never even heard of whole foods much less able to point them out at the grocery store. I had no goal, no plan, and no idea what I was doing. All I knew is that I wanted to drop my cholesterol and a few pounds along the way. Even more important than my health, I wanted to prove my doctor wrong.

There’s nothing like a dose of motivation.

And to my surprise, I was SO right! And, I was so wrong. I did (probably) lower my cholesterol. I did drop weight. I did that and more. I learned that nutrition does matter. I never went back to spill the beans to that GP. You see, I started to feel so good I forgot about my doctor. Almost right away, I felt symptom relief in my painful joints. The stiff and painful feeling in my hands completely went away. I had relief from the frightening swallowing problem I’d had as well as from my heart-burn and chest pain. I started to think more clearly and I felt as if the clouds had parted in my brain. I had amazing improvement with my life-long IBS and other gastric challenges. I created a new me!

Of course, this didn’t happen all at once. Some symptoms dropped away quickly; others took more time. It’s important to note that my pain levels did NOT reduce right away. Pain is a complicated result of a combination of issues. Nutrition is a big part of those issues, but it is just one part.

It took me another six months or more to really see my pain dwindle to about 20% of what it had been. Remember that this is my story. We are each different. I’ve had clients who’ve experienced drastic pain relief almost right away from nutritional changes alone. I’ve seen others who feel significantly better overall, but the pain lingers until they deal with other issues such as stress, fitness, detoxification and more.

Through adding a fitness program, quality supplements, and healthy stress-management practices, I’ve lived nearly 90-95% pain free for the past ten years. That’s a miracle in itself and one for which I’m eternally grateful. What started out as a mission to prove my doctor wrong, ended up being the best fibromyalgia treatment plan I’ve ever found.

So, what nutrition plan jump-started my health journey, you ask? It’s very straightforward. I consumed simple meals of healthy proteins (fish, chicken, turkey, some beef, etc.) and healthy veggies. That was my menu, three meals a day. For hydration, I drank mainly water and sometimes tea.

Was this a perfect diet? No. Back then, I didn’t have a clue that I was completely missing out on one crucial nutrient––healthy fats. To learn more about the benefits of this often missing nutrient, check out this article, “How My Fear of Eating Fats Launched My Weight Loss Journey.”  I also didn’t understand the importance of eating foods that suited my own personal Nutrition Type.

Prior to starting my new nutrition plan, I had been eating a predominantly vegetarian diet, which was closer to what I’d now call a junk-food vegetarian diet. It consisted of canned, frozen, and packaged convenience foods—mainly breads, snacks, and dairy. I ate little to no proteins and very small portions of vegetables (although at the time I thought I ate plenty).

I had NO idea that I was following a diet that would become popularized ten years later. I didn’t intentionally seek a diet to remove gluten, dairy, artificial sugars, fake and processed foods, etc. I didn’t focus at all on what I was cutting out. I only focused on what I was adding in.

What You May Not Know About Gluten

As promised, here are a few more facts about gluten that may be new to you:

  • If you haven’t read the first part of this article, you may not know that living a gluten-free lifestyle helps to reduce whole body inflammation, thereby reducing  inflammation-related fibromyalgia symptoms.
  • According to Dr. Mark Hyman, today’s foods that include gluten include what he calls, a super gluten, a super starch and a super drug (meaning the properties inherent to gluten create intense cravings, driving you to eat more).
  • While a gluten intolerance or sensitivity isn’t the same thing as Celiac disease, they both have a significant negative health impact when not addressed.
  • If you have a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, it’s not as important to know your levels of sensitivity as it is to remove it from your diet and begin to heal.
  • Removing gluten from your diet for a few days or a few weeks does not give your body the time it needs to achieve significant healing.
  • Eating packaged convenience foods that are labelled “gluten-free” can still be inflammation-causing and problematic.
  • 100% of the fibromyalgia and/or autoimmune clients I’ve worked with have demonstrated a sensitivity or intolerance to gluten.
  • 100% of the fibromyalgia and/or autoimmune friends and colleagues that I’ve worked with have all found various levels of healing after dealing with their food sensitivity issues––beginning with gluten.
  • My favorite naturopath and colleague Glen Depke sums up his professional experience here:

    I have reviewed over 4,300 adrenal kits in my career and have seen only five that showed a ‘balanced’ result. In fairness this is based on health challenged individuals, so if you have a health issue, there is approximately 1/10 of 1% chance that your adrenals are actually functioning in balance. To take this one step further, I find that the single biggest trigger for adrenal insufficiency in my clinic is gluten intolerance. Upwards of 90% of my clients with adrenal insufficiency are also dealing with gluten issues. And that percentage jumps to 100% for those who have fibromyalgia and / or autoimmune challenges. These numbers are simply staggering!

You may have noticed in my story above that years ago I cut out a whole lot of inflammation-causing food groups besides gluten. Obviously, removing gluten from your nutrition plan isn’t a panacea for all of your health concerns. But it’s certainly a start. What if removing gluten from your diet can help you to launch your own health recovery journey?

If you’d like to learn more about gluten and how it can affect fibromyalgia symptoms, check out “Top 12 Gluten Myths That Are Dangerous to the Fibromyalgia Community.”

For now, simply take one step at a time. Be objective rather than critical of your results. Don’t strive for perfection. Instead, strive for patience and persistence. Your body may take time to heal, but feeling better will provide you with the needed motivation to continue!

This article, originally published on January 31, 2014, was updated on June 29, 2019.

Sue Ingebretson is becoming a most sought after symptom-relief expert in the fibromyalgia and chronic illness communities. She’s known for getting to the root of her client’s health challenges and delivering long-term results using a light-hearted approach without quick-fix remedies that only mask symptoms. You can find out more and contact Sue at www.RebuildingWellness.com.

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10 thoughts on “The Gluten and Fibromyalgia Symptoms Connection”

  1. IanH says:

    This article fails to convince me of the need to eliminate gluten from the diets of those with FM. Out of 17 people with ME/FM only 2 have gluten sensitivity. Out of 9 people with ME/MCS 8 have gluten sensitivity.

    Some of those with FM had previously eliminated gluten but found no improvement in pain levels or fatigue.

    We need decent science to elucidate how gluten causes problems in some people but not others. This article does not do that.

  2. roge says:

    agree Ian, how this author can state 100% of those FM have gluten intolerance is ridiculous. I myself am really getting tired of those who claim they have FM and say oh eliminate gluten and you will feel 90% better, If so perhaps your main health issue is celiac or gluten intolerance and NOT FM. I know many with FM including myself where eliminating gluten has not helped in an significant manner. I eliminated gluten and even dairy and even eat very healthy and my FM is still no better.

  3. ohiosue says:

    I think going gluten free is just he current buzzword being pushed by the current culture. Gluten free products have no fiber in them, they are expensive and taste awful. I have had tests done by both my gastro doc and my naturopath and have absolutely nothing indicating a gluten sensitivity.

    I eat Ezeikel bread and muffins and I buy organic whole wheat non gmo pasta. I need the wheat to keep my bowels working properly. I think the problem with the wheat is that all the wheat in this country is genetically modified and that is where the problem lies so I buy only non gmo wheat. I started my new healthy eating program after being diagnosed with multiple myeloma and am down to the weight I was when I graduated in 1967, and that is with my wheat!

    sue in ohio

    1. thecuriouslemon says:

      Hello. Never heard of multiple myeloma before. What is that, please?

    2. thecuriouslemon says:

      Well, first, let me say that I am sorry that I comment so much, since I know it annoys some people and worries others. It’s just that I’ve done a lot of research and had a lot of time with being ill, so, I have a lot to say.

      I know for a fact that for me, the triggers that developed into Fibromyalgia were, in order:

      1) Abuse, neglect, poor nutrition for a number of years. This included, of course, a lot of mental and physical stress.
      2) Allergies and intolerances to foods which were never treated and which I was never allowed to address until sometime after my 20th year of life.None of which were wheat, most of which were dairy. Back then, soy was not yet an issue and we mostly ate home baked breads, meats that were not full of fillers, home baked cakes, canned or fresh or frozen vegetables and not much pre-packaged foods, otherwise.
      3) A jerk in high school purposely running up and kissing me, after he found out he had mono, which I then developed and which was never treated and that’s when my health really, really went downhill.
      4) An incredibly bad marriage that makes Sleeping With The Enemy look like a delightful romp through romance, followed by a hideous, fright-filled divorce and a custody battle that lasted about another decade.

      So, when I say that I have never had a problem with wheat, in my life, that is being said by a person who can look back on their life, which has always been filled with pain, and, can see when things got worse and in what ways.

      I know that the inclusion of alcohol, especially beer, into my life did more harm than good. I know that cigarette smoking was a stupid thing to do. I know that if I eat the slightest bit of dairy, my joints swell up, and, if I eat soy my thyroid and joints do.

      If I eat spaghetti with lots of vegetables made with pre-packaged noodles and tomato sauce, and, a little ground beef, I have no flare ups, at all, even if it is mostly noodle because I am, at the time, too poor to have it any other way.

      I do not believe Fibromyalgia is incurable. It is not a disease. It does not need a cure. It is a cluster of symptoms that are pointing out that something is wrong in your life; maybe many things.

      To find a “cure”, you have to change your life. That might be mostly about marriage counseling, mostly about cutting out wheat or dairy or soy (or all of the above), or, finding a new job, or watching Nanny 911 and figuring out how to be a more effective parent. It could be low stomach acid. It’s probably about eating more natural, less starchy foods, as most people just don’t eat enough. Even if it is about that, it may still be one other thing or several other things that need to change.

      Never believe that you can’t beat it. Take in all advice as what it is: advice, not law. Experiment, keep track of symptoms, change your life according to what you learn.

  4. andrewclark55 says:

    Having been diagnosed by my Doctor in 2005 with FM, and told there was no cure, I spent years trying to fix it.

    Initially I used non-dairy products like soya milk exclusively together with bread home-made with Spelt flour rather than wheat.

    That diet helped a bit but I still had a fair bit of pain.

    Then I read that foods low in Oxalate had been tried by a GP with FM so bad she had to give up work. And, guess what, Soya is high in Oxalates.

    I moved to avoid high and medium oxalate content foods about 2 years ago and the difference in only two days was astonishing. I am now about 80 – 90% pain free.

    I also take Vitamins and Minerals daily which seems to help (and also prevents me getting colds) and consider myself pretty healthy these days.

    I don’t have my own health website. I don’t post blogs. I just want other people to know that there might be a ray of hope by trying these things. It may not work for everyone, but it works for me, and I am very grateful to the other people who take time to write up their experiences. It only takes one good article, in my case in the Daily Mail (UK) to find something useful.

    Andrew 🙂

    1. thecuriouslemon says:

      I have found that almost every symptom I have that is related to Fibromyalgia is made worse by soy, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, almonds and anything made with any sort of animal milk at all (except, real Feta cheese, made in the traditional manner, including from the traditional male goat of one particular type of goat). Oh, and, antibiotics, too. And, to some extent, sugar.

      People keep telling me I have to give up wheat and oatmeal, because, I have Fibromyalgia. Also, because, I tend to suffer from yeast overgrowth.

      I did the yeast overgrowth diet, poorly, but, where I ate a lot more vegetables, drank grapefruit extract in my water, while eating oatmeal with butter and honey along with seeds and nuts, still eating sugar sometimes,and,it helped me a lot. The oatmeal, especially, helped me to have bowel movements, eliminating toxins in my body. I was also still eating spaghetti, meat, and all sorts of other things people like to tell other people they have to give up.

      Not everyone who has Fibromyalgia -which is a syndrome, remember, not a disease – have it for the same reason. For some, it is allergies or other health issues, which, untreated or not properly treated, lead to further complications. For some, it is a bad marriage, a rotten childhood, a horrible boss, living in low-income housing, that gets that nasty ball of pain rolling. For most, I suspect, it is a combination of not eating right, being under a lot of stress, and, not having proper medical attention. Not eating right can, and often does, include not noting and eradicating foods from your diet that you have a mild to extreme intolerance for.

      Those foods are not necessarily all wheat based, any more than Fibromyalgia necessarily being primarily caused by a food intolerance, in the first place. Even if one currently has a food intolerance, it could have been caused by taking too many antibiotics for some other problem, altogether, which led to a bacteria imbalance, which led to Fibromyalgia.

      Every person who has Fibromyalgia needs to think for themselves, noting when their symptoms act up the worst and how, and, work toward making their life fit their needs. You cannot paint them all with the same brush.

      The one thing that can be said to be true for all people with Fibromyalgia -because it can be said to be true for all people with diabetes, high cholesterol, migraines, thyroid problems, cortisol spikes(adrenal fatigue), and most everything else that they can have that makes one ill – is that they should eat lots of fresh raw vegetation, especially low starch, low sugar bits, especially leafy green bits.

      After that, they still have to figure out whether that means they can sometimes eat white potatoes or never, or, can they only eat sweet potatoes for starches or should they avoid those too; can they eat oatmeal, wheat, rye, quinoa or do all these cause a flare up?

      I have never, in my life, had a problem with wheat. I’ve had a problem with poor quality wheat bread. I enjoy Sprout’s spelt or sprouted grain bread more than most breads, as they make me feel like I have eaten real food and they are more affordable than other breads that make me feel that way. If I avoid dairy and mostly avoid sugar, and, do my best to keep soy out of my life but sometimes still get some because it was in whatever had sugar, and, I eat mostly vegetables and then mostly low sugar fruits, I tend to feel healthy and start losing weight. That’s while eating pasta dishes, meat (but,less), drinking sodas, and doing other “no-no” things.

      If I did it better, I’d feel even better than that. It’s a work in progress.

      And, by the way, I happen to have known Inuits, though I never met one that lived in an igloo. I can assure you that many of them are well educated people who have attended college and gotten degrees, taken health classes in school, and, the rest still often have intelligent conversations and read magazines. I think you are thinking of Inuits who lived a century or more ago, and, are still basing your information on the myths created by those who were not taken into their culture, so, didn’t really understand it.

    2. thecuriouslemon says:

      People with Fibromyalgia (or, anything else majorly wrong with their health): It might be a good idea to try eliminating wheat, or even all grains, for a time, to see what happens.

      There should be nothing about eliminating them that will harm you and it might help you. At the very least, you would be armed with more information about what does and does not affect you.

      I went without grains of any sort for a week, so my thyroid could be tested, and, I felt no difference; except for a longing for bread. It wasn’t an intense craving, though, so, it didn’t worry me.

    3. thecuriouslemon says:

      I LOVE your attitude. Doctor said it couldn’t be cured, so, I tried to fix it. LOL! Good for you!I wish more people would do that. There are so many things one can do which are not bad for you, and, which might just be very helpful, but, so many are scared to even take that first step.

      Being soy free and dairy free eliminates most of the pain for me, too. I,also, found that when I was really suffering (before I knew about the soy issues and only a little about dairy issues), that taking good quality turmeric powder with water (starting out with 1 tbsp. 3 x a day and ending with 1/4 tsp. once in a while, in the mornings) really helped me, not only to be less inflamed at the time, but, in a permanent way. My digestion improved, the pain has never gotten that bad, again, even when I’ve eating something I absolutely shouldn’t have.

  5. Abbe says:

    I too have Fibromyalgia and was diagnosed 4 years ago on my 40th birthday. It came as a relief to me. I was introduced to the ketogenic diet by a friend and at the same time I gave up a 25 year addiction to cigarettes. I threw the cities away for a healthier lifestyle. Through doing this way of eating I too cut out all gluten and have never felt better. Coming up 2 years I am smoke free and sugar and gluten free. I am also 99% pain free. I really love this way of eating and love my new life just as much.

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