Typically when we think about gluten intolerance and sensitivity, we think about gas, bloating, and diarrhea. These symptoms are undoubtedly common manifestations of reactions to gluten, but the truth is that the gnarly effects of gluten reach farther than the gastrointestinal tract.
For folks with gluten sensitivity, whether celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity, getting “glutened” can trigger widespread inflammation and a cascade of symptoms. And although it’s not widely known, musculoskeletal issues are pretty common in those with gluten reactions.
Osteoporosis, the disease of fragile bones due to mineral and vitamin insufficiency, is frequently found alongside untreated celiac disease—even in those with no symptoms (1).
Low bone mineral density affects up to 75% of people with untreated celiac disease. And celiacs who haven’t gone gluten-free are 40% more likely to fracture a bone (2)! People with subclinical celiac disease, aka “pre-celiac” that has not yet reached the threshold of clinical detection, are 50% more likely to have osteoporosis (3).
But what if you don’t have celiac disease? If you deal with non-celiac gluten sensitivity, you may also have lower bone mineral density than your gluten tolerating counterparts (4), putting you at greater risk for developing osteoporosis. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity has also been linked to low-back pain, fibromyalgia, and headaches, including migraine (5).
At this point, you may be wondering, how the heck does gluten sensitivity lead to osteoporosis?
The answer lies in the gut. For gluten-sensitive individuals (about 10% of people!), ingestion of gluten directly damages the gut. It causes the delicate villi—the finger-like protrusions that line your small intestine—to atrophy and break down. Think luscious shag carpet turning into a flat tile floor. Because the villi play such a big part in the absorption of nutrients, this villous atrophy results in nutrient malabsorption. And you need nutrients to build healthy bones—compounds like calcium, phosphorous, and vitamin D are essential for a healthy musculoskeletal system and preventing osteoporosis.
The good news is that strictly following a gluten-free diet can improve bone mineral density and even reduce osteoporosis (6,7). The research is clear that the sooner gluten sensitivity is caught, the less damage it can do. Next, let’s talk about some other musculoskeletal signs and symptoms to look out for and how to heal from gluten-related harm.
Gluten Sensitivity Can Lead to More Than Just Osteoporosis
No osteoporosis? That’s great news! But do any of these other symptoms sound familiar?
- Joint pain
- Muscle pain
- Headaches (including migraines)
- Nerve pain, weakness, or numbness (neuropathy)
The inflammatory effects that gluten causes are widespread…even to our hands and feet! Achy joints and muscles may not be from overuse or age—it could be gluten.
Healing From Gluten-Related Osteoporosis
If this sounds like you, the first step towards healing is going entirely gluten-free. If a gluten-free lifestyle feels overwhelming and restrictive, I’ve got you covered! My course, Easy Peasy Gluten Freezy™ is specifically designed to help you shift to a gluten-free lifestyle in seven days or less.
Studies show that going gluten-free can improve your bone density if you’re gluten-sensitive with a diagnosis of osteoporosis and osteopenia. But even though a gluten-free diet can prevent further bone loss, it may not be able to fully reverse years of damage (8,9). Ultimately, early intervention is vital in ensuring healthy bone development and re-mineralization (10). For gluten-sensitive folks, that means the earlier you make the switch to gluten-free, the better!
Beyond adopting a gluten-free lifestyle, your healing journey will also require a nutrient-dense diet and exercise. Osteoporosis prevention relies on a balance of nutrients, including bioavailable protein, vitamins D & K, calcium, phosphorus, and omega-3 fatty acids (11). Think broths and stocks, wild-caught fish, egg yolks, pastured pork lard, hard cheeses, sesame seeds, organic tofu, and lots of leafy greens, especially collards and napa cabbage.
Exercise is also incredibly effective at improving bone mineral density in those with osteoporosis. Both high-impact and low-impact training are beneficial (12), so choose what works for you. Good high-impact movements include jumping jacks, squat jumps, or burpees, while low-impact examples are jogging, dancing, and cycling.