Understanding Glutens and Celiac Disease

 

Many of us may be going easy on cupcakes, cookies, bread, and pasta as the summer – and bathing suit season – rapidly approach. But for millions of Americans, avoiding wheat products or the protein known as glutens is about more than fitting into that sundress or tightening our gut before pool and beach time arrive . . . it’s a digestive health priority.

Until several years ago, many people had never heard of glutens or of the digestive disorder known as Celiac Disease. While only one percent of Americans have Celiac Disease, as many as 10 percent may be gluten sensitive or allergic to wheat, which often causes similar symptoms. Due to similar symptoms, gluten or wheat issues can be misdiagnosed or confused with other common gastrointestinal issues such as lactose intolerance, Crohn’s Disease, Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and heartburn.

May is National Celiac Disease Awareness Month. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease in which a person can’t tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten shows up in bread and pasta, but may also hide in many other foods such as cold cuts, salad dressings, beer and even candy and sweetened drinks.

If a person with Celiac Disease eats gluten, the lining of their small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged. That hampers the absorption of nutrients and can lead to malnutrition and weight loss. Celiac patients also struggle with symptoms such as diarrhea, upset stomach, abdominal pain, and bloating.

Celiac Disease may take years to diagnose because people don’t seek medical help, and because doctors often mistake it for IBS or other stomach disorders. It’s often a waiting game, and a process of testing and running through a list of possible culprits. For long-term sufferers, years of poor calcium absorption, a related side effect, can lead to joint and tooth problems and, for women, delayed menstruation. Besides gastrointestinal symptoms, gluten-sensitive people often complain of fatigue, headaches and arthritis-like symptoms, as well.

Celiac Disease is on the rise, with rates doubling about every 20 years in Western countries.  Ironically, researchers suspect that hygiene may play a role in that expansion. Due to far cleaner environments and hygiene, children today aren’t exposed to as many antigens in the environment while their immune systems are developing. This, it’s theorized, may result in our immune systems responding intolerantly toward glutens.

Though Celiac Disease can be diagnosed through a blood test and an intestinal biopsy, there’s no reliable test for gluten sensitivity. It often runs in families, and diagnosis requires discussion and tracking of symptoms. Patients are typically asked to eat glutens so the body produces antibodies for the blood test to detect Celiac disease. If a person simply stops ingesting gluten, a Celiac Disease diagnosis can be missed or delayed. Currently it is estimated that 80 percent of the Celiac Disease population remains undiagnosed.

Some people experience symptoms found in celiac disease, such as depression, ADHD-like behavior, abdominal pain, bloating, diarrhea, constipation, headaches, bone or joint pain, and chronic fatigue when they have gluten in their diet, yet do not test positive for celiac disease. The terms non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and non-celiac wheat sensitivity (NCWS) are generally used to refer to this condition, and removing gluten from the diet resolves symptoms.

Likewise, for people with gluten allergies or sensitivities, a strict, gluten-free diet can typically allow the intestines to restore themselves to health and alleviate suffering.  Supermarkets and health food stores now carry a variety of gluten-free products, and new labeling requirements on processed foods do a better job of listing ingredients. Many restaurants and take-out food services have gluten-free products, as well.

It’s important to note, though, that while gluten-free eating is life-changing for many, if you don’t have gluten sensitivities or Celiac Disease, going “gluten free” is not good for your health. Contrary to common belief, a gluten-free diet won’t aid weight loss, and can cause deficiencies in iron, vitamin B12, vitamin D, magnesium, fiber, and other nutrients that we typically gain through bread, cereals and other grains that are fortified. Additionally, gluten-free products on store shelves are typically higher in carbohydrates, fat and sodium, and lower in fiber.

With proper direction, people can bake healthier breads at home, varieties that are higher in fiber and protein and made with gluten-free grains that have been certified to be uncontaminated and gluten-free, such as quinoa, amaranth, or millet. If you suspect you may be gluten sensitive, talk with your physician – there are many healthy alternatives!


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!