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What to do when you get “glutened”

It’s bound to happen. Here’s what I do to recover.

Written by
Robyn Harrison
Published on
January 7, 2021
Time to read
5
mins

When you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance, no matter how careful you are there will probably come a time where you will get “glutened”.

glutened
verb, past tense

When someone with celiac disease or a gluten intolerance consumes food with enough gluten to make them ill.

Whether you forgot to read a label, there's a slip up in a restaurant, cross contamination, or someone else accidentally serves it to you, it's bound to happen at one time or another.

And. It. Sucks.

So what do you do?

Two levels of “glutening”

Let me start this off by saying that people will have different responses when ingesting gluten. My reaction is fairly extreme, as I have celiac disease, so I'm going to talk from my experience.

There are two levels of “glutening”:

  1. Full-on glutened
  2. Cross contamination

1. Full-on glutened.

Full-on glutened is when you accidentally just ate a whole burger bun. Or a sandwich. Or a plate of pasta. You thought it was gluten-free but it turned out to be pure gluten hell.

Apart from a server telling you they made a mistake, or your boyfriend realizing he'd served you a veggie burger with bread crumbs, most of the time you won't know you've consumed gluten until it's too late. There are, however, a few signs you can look out for:

  • nausea (with increasing severity)
  • excessive burping
  • abdominal pain

If you feel any of these, first things first: are you in public? Are you surrounded by people? Are you sitting across from your date? If so, remove yourself from that situation because it's not going to be pretty.

For me, when I'm full-on glutened I have about 90 minutes from the time I eat something to when toss my cookies.

I'm not kidding, 90 minutes on the dot, it comes back with a vengeance. Like clockwork. Well, the 3 times it's happened to me. (Twice in public.)

To paraphrase Shakespeare: Get thee to a bathroom!

2. Cross contamination

Cross contamination, or cross contam (it'll catch on), is the second level of glutening. For me, the aftermath of full-on glutening is very obvious; cross contam is much sneakier.

I'll be going about my business, thinking what I ate was totally fine.

Then, within a couple of hours I'll start getting bloated (really bloated), accompanied by jabbing pains in my gut. Fun times.

So: you've been glutened. What do you do now?

Unfortunately, there isn't much you can do. You need to wait it out. While you wait, here are some things I do to help ease my discomfort.

Side note: I am not a medical professional, and this isn't medical advice.

Rest

The most important thing you need to do after getting glutened is rest. Put on some loose, cozy clothes, grab a pillow and blanket. And rest until you feel better.  If you're celiac, getting glutened means that you've triggered your autoimmune response, which means there's likely some damage to your gut. They only way to heal is to sleep and rest and give it time.

Drink

Drink plenty of water. If your body has decided to clear itself out, you'll need to replenish those liquids. I find that green tea or herbal tea (like ginger and peppermint) also make my stomach feel better.

Eat something (when you're feeling up to it)

You'll want to stick to bland foods for a little while (like broth, rice, plain pasta, corn chips, potatoes — this is your excuse to eat all the carbs!) — honestly, that's probably all you'd want to eat anyway. Avoid any foods that may already be upsetting for your stomach, like dairy, or things that are hard on the stomach like spicy foods, coffee, alcohol, (and for me things like legumes or raw veggies).

Ease your pain

If you're having gut pain, there's no magic pill that can make it go away, but I find that heat can help. My go-to is a magic bag, though you could use a hot water bottle. I also find that lying in child's pose helps to alleviate pain in my gut, so I'll often hang out there for a while. You could also lie on your back with your knees into your stomach. Basically, anything where your knees are pulled into your chest will feel good on your gut.

Take a probiotic

Probiotics are good to help restore your gut bacteria in the aftermath of a glutening. I normally choose a critical care strain (5-10 billion active cells). Some people suggest taking supplements such as l-glutamine, activated charcoal, and enzymes. Unfortunately, there is no concrete evidence that these supplements have any effect.

You may notice a distinct difference in your mental state after being glutened. This is the dreaded brain fog. Symptoms of brain fog may include:

  • memory problems
  • lack of mental clarity
  • poor concentration
  • inability to focus

In other words, you may not be as sharp as you were before. Don't worry, it will pass!

All in all, you may feel off for several days and, depending on the amount of gluten you consumed, it can take up to two weeks to heal.

After you’ve healed

Now that you're feeling better, it's time to take another look at how you got "glutened" so you can avoid the same mistake in the future.

The three times I was full-on glutened were:

  1. When I had a "gluten-free" afternoon tea in Scotland (my sandwich looked suspiciously like my boyfriend's)
  2. When my boyfriend mistakenly gave me a gluten-filled veggie burger that was sitting at the back of the freezer (not labelled)
  3. When my go-to restaurant served me a regular burger bun (they're normally very careful)

Here are a few good reminders:

  • read every label, even if (especially if!) you're pretty sure it's gluten free
  • avoid “may contain” items which may be contaminated
  • when someone else is serving something to you, ask them to check labels — it's not annoying if you're polite about it
  • if you share a household with gluten-eaters, make sure items are labelled to avoid confusion
  • always let a restaurant know you have celiac disease or a gluten intolerance and double check it's actually gluten-free before you dig in

If you want more tips on how to avoid these mistakes, check out my guide for how to eat at restaurants and my top 7 tips for transitioning to a gluten-free life.

Robyn Harrison

Robyn is a home baker based in Toronto, Canada. She comes from several generations of award-winning bakers. After her celiac diagnosis in 2016, and her doctor's advice to “Say good-bye to bread!”, her gluten-free journey began. She is the founder of Robyn's Gluten-free Baking Courses and Robyn's Gluten-free Living. Her mission is to raise the bar for gluten-free baking; “good enough” is no longer good enough.