Going Gluten-free

You may have noticed lately a marked increase in the number of food items in the grocery store labeled “gluten-free.” That is a very important piece of information for a growing number of people diagnosed with Celiac disease as the only medically acceptable treatment for the condition is a 100-percent gluten-free diet.

Celiac disease is an inherited, autoimmune disease in which the lining of the small intestine is damaged from eating gluten, which is found in wheat containing foods such as bread, pasta, cookies, pizza crust and many other foods containing barley, rye and possibly oats. When a person with Celiac disease eats gluten, the body responds by damaging the small intestine. This leads to an inability for the body to absorb essential nutrients.

If left untreated through a gluten-free diet, Celiac disease can cause anemia and stunted growth in children; loss of calcium and bone density; lactose intolerance from intestinal damage; intestinal cancers; and even disorders of the nervous system such as seizures and nerve damage.

Celiac disease is often misdiagnosed because the symptoms are common and resemble several other conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, gastric ulcers and Crohn’s disease. Those with Celiac disease may experience intermittent diarrhea, abdominal pain, bloating, upset stomach, irritability, depression, joint pain, muscle cramps or anemia. Dental and bone disorders, unexplained weight loss, or tingling of the legs and feet may also be indicators of malabsorption from Celiac disease.

Although Celiac disease can affect anyone, people with a family history of the condition are at a much greater risk. Also commonly affected are people with diabetes, Down’s syndrome, autoimmune thyroid disease and microscopic colitis.

With a gluten-free diet, people with Celiac disease can effectively manage the condition and live pain-free. It is not always easy; many foods and even some medications contain gluten. But with the growing number of gluten-free products on the market, even pizza lovers can avoid gluten. A registered dietitian who is experienced in teaching the gluten-free diet can offer advice on how to best maintain the nutritional quality of your diet and help sufferers come up with gluten-free alternatives and achieve a healthy lifestyle.

Once gluten is removed from the diet, inflammation in the small intestine subsides, and the organ will begin to repair itself. People generally begin feeling better in just a few days, though extensive damage may require some vitamin and mineral supplements to correct deficiencies.

On March 1, 2010, results of an international study out of London were released indicating scientists have identified new genetic links to Celiac disease. Their findings could speed the search for better ways to diagnose and treat Celiac disease and possibly even related autoimmune diseases like Type 1 diabetes.

If you are experiencing symptoms and suspect Celiac disease, see your doctor. The best treatment is a strictly followed gluten-free diet, but do not begin a gluten-free diet before you see a physician. If you stop eating foods that contain gluten before being tested, the test results may not be accurate.