Over 3 million Americans are suffering from a hidden epidemic; if you’re affected by bloating, fatigue or joint pain, Celiac disease could be responsible. Celiac disease can wreak havoc on your body and even predispose you to liver disease or cancer.
Even worse, this disorder is commonly misdiagnosed or unrecognized by doctors. But there are critical signs and symptoms you can look for if you’re worried you are at risk. A gluten-free diet might be the answer to your prayers – and even if you are gluten tolerant, eliminating gluten could help you lose weight.
Gluten: What It Is and Where to Find It
Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that prevents your intestine from absorbing nutrients properly. That’s because people with celiac disease cannot tolerate gluten, a protein commonly found in wheat and other grains such as rye and barley. Gluten gives bread its springy texture and is even used in products like pills and beauty treatments. Gluten can also hide in other foods and food products like bacon bits, blue cheese, beer, flavored coffee, licorice and soy sauce.
What Happens When You Ingest Gluten
If you have Celiac disease and ingest this protein, your immune system responds by releasing antibodies that damage or destroy your intestinal villi – part of the fine architecture of your small intestine. Normally, your small intestine is like a plush carpet lined with finger-like villi that absorb crucial nutrients from food. When you have Celiac disease, those villi flatten out and the intestinal carpet looks more like a hardwood floor; and you can no longer absorb nutrients properly. This leads to malnutrition, no matter how much you eat. There is a difference between gluten intolerance and Celiac disease; gluten intolerance generally does not cause the same kind of intestinal damage, but does lead to uncomfortable abdominal symptoms with the ingestion of gluten.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
The symptoms can be hard to pinpoint, but the most common general complaints are abdominal pain, bloating and intermittent diarrhea. Sometimes people with Celiac disease have no abdominal symptoms at all, and instead present with complains that include irritability, joint pain, muscle cramps, mouth sores, tingling in the feet, or even with a rash called Dermatitis herpetiformis – an itchy, blistering skin disease caused by gluten intolerance.
The treatment for this rash, as well as the other symptoms of Celiac disease, is to maintain a gluten-free diet. They key is getting to the right diagnosis. Celiac disease can be a tricky diagnosis because this disorder mimics other conditions such as IBS, ulcers, Crohn’s disease and anemia.
Researchers now believe that Celiac disease may be more common in the United States than previously thought, especially given the high rate of misdiagnosis. There are now reliable blood tests to help your doctor determine if you are a Celiac sufferer. Because Celiac is an autoimmune disease, people with Celiac have abnormally high levels of certain antibodies (anti-gliadin, anti-endomysium and anti-tissue transglutaminase). Your doctor can test for these antibody levels and may confirm the diagnosis with an endoscopic tissue sample (which involves using a tiny camera to look at the lining of the intestines.)
If you do have Celiac disease, a gluten-free diet is the key to relief because currently there is no cure. The main foods to avoid are:
- Bread, crackers
- Cookies, cakes and pies
- Gravies/sauces with flour
Certain types of grains, such as amaranth, buckwheat and quinoa are gluten-free: but be sure the label says gluten-free because cross-contamination can easily occur if these products are manufactured in the same factories or settings as gluten grains.
Foods that are generally safe for people with Celiac disease include:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Meats, fish and poultry (unbreaded)
- Most dairy products
- Gluten-free flours (rice, soy, corn, potato)
As awareness of Celiac disease increases across the country, more and more manufacturers are offering gluten-free products. A registered dietician can also help you learn to identify foods that are gluten-free.
If you accidentally do consume gluten, you may experience diarrhea or stomach cramping because even trace amounts of gluten can cause damage. The key is learning to read food labels and eliminating foods with gluten. A G-free diet generally leads to full recovery for most sufferers.