As the medical world merges with technology and science, the information and studies produced tell us much more about our bodies today than in the past. More people understand why their bodies react a certain way and are able to recognize a symptom versus a common bodily function. This has led to the education and understanding of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity. I feel this topic is important to address because:
Celiac disease affects approximately 1 in 133 Americans, and about 83 percent of those who have it are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. While celiac disease is the most extreme, research estimates that 18 million Americans have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. That’s 6 times the amount of Americans who have celiac disease (celiaccentral.org).
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by the consumption of the protein called gluten, which is found in wheat, barley, rye, and potentially oats. When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the finger-like villi of the small intestine. When the villi become damaged, the body is unable to absorb nutrients into the bloodstream, which can lead to malnourishment.
Any sort of cross-contamination of foods can trigger symptoms in someone who is gluten intolerant. For example, using a knife that had previously touched bread to then cut an apple for someone with celiac disease can have a profound effect. Gluten can be found in food, condiments, alcoholic beverages, and even medications.
There are many symptoms associated with gluten intolerance and celiac disease. Some of the most common include:
- Bloating or gas • Diarrhea
- Constipation • Fatigue
- Itchy skin rash • Tingling/Numbness
- Pale mouth sores • Joint pain
- Delayed growth • Poor weight gain
- Thin bones • Infertility
- Headaches • Depression
- Irritability • Discolored teeth
There are more than 300 symptoms for celiac disease, which can vary among different people, making it extremely difficult to diagnose. Left untreated, people with celiac disease can develop further complications such as other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, thyroid disease, and cancer (celiaccentral.org). Because these symptoms can mimic other diseases, the only way to test for celiac disease is through a blood test, and possibly a series of blood tests, as well as potentially an intestinal biopsy. Even then, the results may be inconclusive.
This is the case for many individuals who experience the symptoms associated with celiac disease, but test negative for it. These individuals may instead have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. Non-celiac gluten sensitivity has been coined to describe those individuals who cannot tolerate gluten and experience symptoms similar to those with celiac disease but yet who lack the same antibodies and intestinal damage as seen in celiac disease.
The only way to alleviate these symptoms is to maintain a completely gluten free lifestyle. Many food companies and restaurants are more aware of celiac disease and gluten intolerance and have adapted their ingredients to accommodate affected individuals. Additionally, there are many gluten-free alternative ingredients that can be used in place of those containing gluten. Some of the most common include brown rice, quinoa, corn flour, corn starch, guar gum, amaranth, tapioca starch, potato flour, potato starch, almond flour, soy flour, sweet rice, buckwheat, teff, xanthan gum, and lentils. As gluten is removed from the diet, the small intestine will eventually heal itself and return to normal.
Resources for a gluten-free lifestyle are plentiful. There are a plethora of magazines, blogs, websites, and cookbooks that offer advice, recipes, encouragement, information, and communities regarding celiac disease and gluten intolerance. A rising number of people are choosing to live gluten-free even though they have no reaction to the protein, as well. As long as the proper measures are taken, those who have celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity can maintain optimal health and quality of life.
In an effort to recognize National Celiac Awareness Month, I challenge you to go one day without gluten. Feel free to share thoughts, advice, and gluten free recipes on our Facebook page or in the comments below.