What the Heck is Gluten and What is Celiac Disease?

Also consider gluten intolerance to be included here. Gluten intolerance may not be full blown celiac disease, but the
symptoms and dietary adjustments would be the same for all intents and purposes.

• What the heck is gluten?

Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, rye and barley. It can also be found in products that do not contain these items, but have been processed in a factory that does, and on shared equipment. (Also known as “cross-contamination or cross-contact) Oats are great, just get them from a dedicated facility. They will state “gluten free.” I love oats. Not everyone can tolerate oats, but most of us can.

• What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is a chronic, autoimmune intestinal disorder caused by these evil glutens. (I’m not sure if gluten can be pluralized, but I just did-so there.) In essence, when your body recognizes the gluten proteins it goes into attack mode.

Unfortunately the attack is on your intestinal lining. This can damage the “villi” or absorptive surfaces in the small intestine. Which can then lead to bloating, gas, and the pooping. Lots of pooping. Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person in severity and type.

Symptoms can include:
1. Iron or vitamin deficiency
2. Chronic fatigue or weakness (not the “too lazy to overcome couch gravity” kind, by the way)
3. Abdominal pain, bloating, gas (this is my personal fave and the one I see the most whenever I get glutened)
4. Reflux/heartburn
5. Diarrhea/constipation
6. Lactose intolerance
7. Weight loss (due to lack of absorption of nutrients-NOT a good way to lose weight, my friends)
8. Joint pain
9. Bruising
10. Headaches
11. Depression
12. And the list could go on……

Continued exposure to gluten can lead to absorptive issues with vitamins/minerals/good stuff. This can in the long term result in osteoporosis, anemia, neurological conditions, other autoimmune disorders, and some cancers.

• How common is celiac disease?

Way more common than the collective “they” used to think. At this point it is estimated that approximately 1% of the US population (1 in 100 to 133 or so-give or take a few people ;) have celiac disease. Many are undiagnosed, and many have been misdiagnosed with the garbage can of intestinal disorders, IBS. Also known as “we don’t know what’s wrong with you.”

(This is my opinion, people. It is what it is.)

• How do you “get” it?

There is a large genetic component. Once one person in a family is diagnosed, others usually are as well. My Dad always thought he just had a “bad stomach” until I was diagnosed. You may also have the gene for celiac disease but never develop the condition. It appears that you must have the gene, and then an environmental “trigger” may cause the onset of symptoms.
The trigger may be stress, diet, any number of things.

• How do I get tested?

Visit your doctor. DO NOT make any changes to your diet prior to seeing your doctor and getting tested. If you go gluten free prior to testing, it will skew you results and create a pain in the butt for getting a solid diagnosis. Your doctor may order blood tests, saliva tests, and/or an upper GI (endoscopy.) It’s not too bad, I promise. They can do gene testing as well as testing for antibodies. An endoscopy would take a look at the small intestine and assess if there is any damage, as well as provide biopsy samples.

• So what do you do about it?

The “cure” is a gluten free diet for life. It’s really not so bad, I promise. People will say things like “oh my goodness, that’s horrible!” and make you feel really good about it. (Does sarcasm come across in the written medium? Hmm..) But really and truly, it’s not. There are MANY naturally gluten free foods that will help you maintain great health, both with celiac and in a general sense. The occasional gluten free treat like a brownie or something is great too. But don’t think
you have to subsist on packaged gluten free macaroni and cheese, or pasta. Seriously. Those things are silly expensive, and there are much better choices that don’t have a million ingredients and are processed and packaged. Naturally gluten free foods, baby.

For more details and information, if you think you or a family member may have celiac disease, please visit the National Foundation of Celiac Awareness website. They have a celiac disease symptoms checklist, along with many other resources.

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