Gluten is a protein found in certain grains. It can trigger symptoms for people with underlying conditions like celiac disease or a wheat allergy, including vision-related problems often referred to as "celiac eyes" or "gluten eyes."
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Per the Celiac Disease Foundation (CDF), gluten is naturally found in grains like:
- Brewer's yeast
- Wheat starch
These grains are typically nutritious components of a balanced diet. But if you have celiac disease, gluten triggers an immune system attack against your small intestine, according to the CDF. As a result, eating gluten can cause symptoms like:
- Abdominal pain
- Unexplained iron-deficiency anemia
- Bone or joint pain
- Depression or anxiety
Some people without celiac disease can also experience gluten problems, including those with a non-celiac gluten sensitivity, intolerance or wheat allergy, according to the CDF.
And symptoms of each of these conditions can go beyond your digestive system. Here's how gluten can affect your eyes, including celiac disease eye problems and allergies that cause watery eyes.
Eye problems are not listed among the most common symptoms of celiac disease, per the CDF. But this doesn't mean they can't happen, so talk to your doctor if you have eye issues and a gluten-related health condition to get the treatment you need.
1. Eye Problems From Malnutrition
Sometimes "celiac eyes" may be due to malnutrition from the disorder. That's because celiac disease can make it harder for your body to absorb certain nutrients, per the National Institutes of Health (NIH). For some, this can lead to vitamin deficiencies that can cause eye issues.
For instance, not having enough vitamin A in your system can cause dry eye, trouble seeing in dim light and damage to your retina, according to January 2016 research in the International Journal of Ophthalmology.
Severe vitamin D deficiency from celiac disease malabsorption can also lead to eye problems like cataracts, per the same research.
Fix it: Visit your doctor if you have celiac disease and are experiencing eye complications. They can help determine if a vitamin deficiency is to blame and, if so, prescribe supplements to help you get enough nutrients.
Is Celiac Disease Deadly?
Celiac disease that isn't diagnosed or treated can be fatal for some, per the NIH. However, this is rare, as avoiding gluten can effectively heal and prevent further damage to the small intestine, as well as stave off symptoms like celiac disease eyes.
2. Dry Eye
Celiac disease doesn't always cause "celiac eyes" per se. But people with the condition are at higher risk for having other autoimmune illnesses that can lead to eye problems, including a disorder called Sjogren's syndrome, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Sjogren's syndrome is when your immune system attacks the moisture-producing membranes and glands in your eyes and mouth, leading to symptoms like dry eye and dry mouth, per the Mayo Clinic. You may also feel itching, burning or a gritty sensation in your eyes.
Fix it: Visit your doctor to determine if Sjogren's syndrome is the cause of your gluten and dry eyes connection. If it is, they can help relieve your symptoms with prescription medication or eye drops, according to the Mayo Clinic.
3. Swollen, Itchy or Watery Eyes
If you don't have celiac disease but your eyes water when eating gluten, you may have a food allergy.
Here's why your eyes can water when you eat gluten: Wheat is one of the major food allergens, according to the Mayo Clinic. And food allergies can make your eyes itch, swell or water, per the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
A wheat allergy can also cause symptoms like:
- Tingly or itchy mouth
- Swelling of the lips, mouth, throat or face
- Skin rash
- Wheezing or trouble breathing
- Abdominal pain, diarrhea, nausea or vomiting
- Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
Fix it: Visit your doctor to determine if you have an allergy to wheat (or another food), per the Mayo Clinic. If you do, following a wheat-free diet is the best way to prevent symptoms. Steer clear of wheat products like:
- Whole-wheat berries
- Soy sauce
- Baked goods with wheat flour
However, it's important to note that following a gluten-free diet won't prevent seasonal allergies from non-wheat triggers like pollen or dust (though cutting out certain fruits, veggies, nuts and spices that can contain proteins similar to pollen may help), per the Mayo Clinic.
Some people can have an extreme allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, where your throat closes up and makes it difficult to breathe, per the Mayo Clinic. Seek medical care immediately if this happens to you.
- Celiac Disease Foundation: "Sources of Gluten"
- Celiac Disease Foundation: "What is Celiac Disease?"
- Celiac Disease Foundation: "Non-Celiac Gluten/Wheat Sensitivity"
- Celiac Disease Foundation: "Symptoms of Celiac Disease"
- Mayo Clinic: "Sjogren's syndrome"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Celiac Disease"
- Mayo Clinic: "Food allergy"
- U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Food allergy"
- National Institutes of Health: "Celiac disease"
- International Journal of Ophthalmology: "Ophthalmologic manifestations of celiac disease"
- Celiac Disease Foundation: "Gluten-Free Foods"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.