May is Celiac Awareness Month. It astonishes me how much people still do not understand celiac sprue disease and other gluten intolerance. Some still think that gluten free diets are a fad but to those who suffer from a gluten allergy, the explosion of gluten free food is a sigh of relief. There are more than 200,000 cases of celiac cases in the US per year. I’ve been on the gluten free diet for about 10 years and it’s been a struggle. So before you roll your eyes at someone who requests a gluten free menu or asks for the ingredients, educate yourself about the importance of a gluten free diet for those who need it.
Celiac sprue disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. The body creates inflammation that damages the small intestine. The villi, the fingerlike projections in the small intestine, which aid in absorption of nutrients are attacked by the body when gluten is present. The reaction leads to atrophy of the villi which leads to malabsorption. The classic symptoms are diarrhea with other symptoms of bloating, gas, fatigue, anemia, nausea, vomiting and decreased or increased appetite. Sufferers can also experience a wide range of pain in the abdomen, bones and joints. The pain can be a sharp, stabbing pain or a constant ache. I can tell when I’ve had gluten because my wrists will aches and I will get sharp pains in the middle of my forearms. Other conditions which are related to celiac and gluten intolerance is cramping, itching, lactose intolerance, skin rash, unexplained weight loss or even weight gain.
The cause of celiac and other gluten intolerance is unknown and it can develop at any point in life from infancy to adulthood. It is most common in Caucasians or those with European ancestry. Celiac will affect more women than men. People with celiac disease or gluten intolerance may also have other autoimmune disorders such as systemic lupus erythematosus, Sjogren’s syndrome, and Addison’s disease. Gluten intolerance has also been found in people with Down syndrome, intestinal cancers, thyroid disease and as mentioned before, lactose intolerance. I find the link to lactose intolerance interesting as I was lactose intolerance throughout childhood and adolescence. I would break out in skin rashes and have upset stomach whenever I had too much milk. After going gluten free, I noticed that I could tolerate larger and larger amounts of milk. While I still watch how much milk I consume, I don’t have the same reactions as I did when I was younger.
Gluten intolerance is very difficult diagnosis. A blood test is usually done first. If a positive test comes back, then an upper endoscopy is performed. A biopsy of tissue from the villi of the duodenum is taken. Misdiagnosis will occur or in my case, be inconclusive. My doctor said that if I felt better on the gluten free diet, then I most likely had an intolerance. So while I do not have an official diagnosis, I do have it on my medical records that I am gluten free. And I do feel better. The symptoms of an intolerance can go beyond the digestive system. Easy bruising can be seen in sufferers, or in my case, a bruise which has never really gone away. Depression and anxiety are common. In children, a failure to thrive is common as well as fussiness, tooth defects and delayed puberty.
The only treatment for celiac and gluten intolerance is a gluten free diet. A gluten free diet will relieve the symptoms and may lead to healing of the small intestine. So stay away from anything made from wheat, barely, and rye. Sounds easily right? Wrong! Gluten can be found in everything! Breads, cookies, cakes, and other foods that have obvious gluten ingredients. However, there are some that aren’t so obvious. For instance, soy sauce and some package seasonings. Beer is off limits. Some barbeque sauces have malted barley as an ingredient. Some candy is off limits too. Milky Way, Whoppers, and Werther’s Original caramels are just a few which may not seem to have gluten but they do. Checking ingredient lists at the grocery store becomes second nature and eating out can be a night mare. Not following the diet can put a person at risk for other autoimmune diseases, bone disease, certain types of intestinal cancers, anemia and infertility or repeated miscarriage.
In conclusion, the gluten free diet isn’t a fad. It may have started that way with people thinking it was a healthier way to eat. However, the people who have benefited a great deal from the rise in the availability of gluten free food are those who desperately need it. I can finally have decent pasta dishes with my family. I can have a hamburger without treating it like a steak. I can bake cookies and cakes for birthdays. Remember before you make a remark or get annoyed at the person asking for the ingredient lists, you don’t know how dangerous it can be for an individual if gluten is in the food they eat. Please treat gluten free individuals will the same respect as you would for people with more noticeable food allergies like strawberries or peanuts.
For further information:
Celiac Disease Foundation www.celiac.org
Mayo Clinic http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/celiac-disease/basics/definition/con-20030410
Celiac Support Association www.csaceliacs.org