Celiac Disease month is coming up in October, so now is a great time to bring awareness to this very damaging disease, as well as discuss the other end of the spectrum which is gluten sensitivity.
Celiac Disease (CD) is an autoimmune condition where a person has an autoimmune response to various proteins of the gluten family that are found in grains such as wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and possibly oats and other grains. The body launches a serious immune response to these proteins which causes significant damage to the intestinal lining, leading to abdominal pain, malabsorption, nutrient deficiencies, and even skin problems, although some people have been found to test positive for CD yet remain symptomless.
If you have another autoimmune disease, such as diabetes or thyroid disease, you should also be aware of an increased risk for developing CD. The condition occurs in about 1 out of 133 Americans, and rates have been steadily increasing so that they are now four-fold what they were 50 years ago. The only true cure for CD is a completely gluten-free diet, which is challenging even in the best of circumstances!
There is also a possibility that you could have suspicious symptoms after eating wheat or gluten, such as digestive distress, fatigue, bloating, gas, irregular bowels, joint pain, eczema, or other unusual reactions, but tests tell you that you don’t have CD. The tests are not 100% accurate, so you may have CD, or it is possible that you have gluten sensitivity.
Scientists are discovering that there is a difference between full-blown food allergies, which induce acute responses such as hives or anaphalaxis, and food sensitivities, which cause low-grade chronic reactions in the immune system. You can be sensitive to almost any food, but wheat/gluten, soy and dairy are the most common offenders. Chronic consumption of foods you are sensitive to will lead to chronic inflammation, which may trigger autoimmune diseases, weight gain, joint pain, and other problems.
If you suspect you have a gluten sensitivity, it can be confirmed by an allergy test that looks at specific immune responses called IgG antibodies. Not all doctors are aware of this test, and some may debate its efficacy (despite the fact that the “accepted” skin-prick test for food allergies has a 50% accuracy rate!).
If you aren’t able to access the IgG test, you can do an allergy elimination diet at home, and remove the food groups that you suspect you are allergic to from your diet for at least two weeks. Then do a challenge test by consuming a large quantity of a specific food group (one group per 3-4 days) and see if you have any unusual symptoms over the next few hours or days. This strategy can elicit a more severe allergic reaction than you may experience when consuming the sensitive food on a regular basis, and help you pinpoint the offending foods more clearly.
So what do you do if you find out you are sensitive or allergic to gluten, since it is present in so many foods found in stores and restaurants? The road is not an easy one, but is one that you can adapt to over time. The first focus should be on learning to cook the majority of your own meals, with whole foods as the foundation of your diet. I personally have had great success with whole food, gluten-free cooking by using The Whole Foods Nutrition cookbook. It’s chock full of recipes that are so delicious you won’t even notice the absence of wheat.
Preparing your own meals is ideal, but of course there will be times when you need a little treat. Be sure to carefully read labels on packaged foods, as wheat can show up in unsuspecting places.
If you have CD, be sure to use gluten free dietary supplements. All Thorne brand supplements are gluten free, as the company thoroughly tests their products and is extremely careful about their raw material sourcing.
Going gluten free takes extra effort and diligence, but when you do it successfully it can be very worthwhile!
Divergence of gut permeability and mucosal immune gene expression in two gluten associated conditions: celiac disease and gluten sensitivity,” BMC Medicine 2011, 9:23