Gluten Free Medications: Spotting Gluten Free Drugs

For people with celiac disease, gluten sensitivity or a gluten allergy, getting sick may come with additional complications.

Since celiac disease is an autoimmune condition, and celiacs often suffer from malnutrition before their disorder is diagnosed and they begin eating gluten free, someone with CD may be more prone to illness, including colds, flu, gastrointestinal issues and more. When your system is run-down due to not getting enough of the proper nutrients, you are susceptible to germs that go around.

To make it worse, many over-the-counter treatments for problems such as colds, runny noses or stomachaches, and even many pain relievers, may contain gluten. If you are eating gluten free and get sick, what can you do?

Why Do Medications Need Gluten?
Gluten is used in some common over-the-counter and prescription medications as a binding agent to hold the pill together, or in the coating of a gelcap or other encapsulated medicine. The gluten is found in the fillers of the medications. These fillers also aid in water absorption, helping the medication dissolve in the body more quickly. Some companies use gluten free fillers, such as potato, corn or tapioca starch, rather than wheat starch.

Finally, some medications contain sweeteners in the form of sugar alcohols, which often contain gluten. However, these sugar alcohols often don’t affect those with a gluten sensitivity. We’ll talk more about that later.

Finding Gluten Free Medications
Most medications aren’t labeled gluten free, even though they may not contain gluten. Knowing what ingredients to look for on a label can help you spot gluten free medications.

Look for starch fillers in the form of corn starch, potato starch or tapioca starch. Avoid wheat starch or any starch that doesn’t specify its derivative, including pregelatinized starch or sodium starch glycolate.

Other inactive ingredients that may come from wheat or barley include:

  • Dextrates
  • Dextrins
  • Dextri-maltose
  • Maltodextrin

What’s the Deal with Sugar Alcohols?
Sugar alcohols are another ingredient derived from any type of starch. So if you see sugar alcohols listed in the ingredients on your medication, the medicine may contain wheat starch. However, when sugar alcohols are refined to make products like mannitol and xylitol—often used as sweeteners or bulking agents in popular medications—the gluten proteins are removed.

Other sugar alcohols that are safe for celiacs, according to most sources, include:

  • Sorbitol
  • Malitol
  • Lactilol
  • Isomalt

It’s important to note that these sugar alcohols, when consumed in quantity, can cause diarrhea, bloating and excessive gas—symptoms also prevalent in CD sufferers. That’s why many celiacs who use these products think they contain gluten.

However, if you’re not consuming large quantities in food products, but only the small amount found in medications, you should not have any issues.

When in Doubt About Gluten Free Drugs…
If you’re not sure about the ingredients in a prescription or over-the-counter medication, call the manufacturer. Your pharmacist or even your doctor may not know if a product contains gluten or not, but the manufacturer should know.

Suzy Cohen, at her website “Dear Pharmacist,” published a list of medications commonly considered to be gluten free, which may help, too.

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