Gluten intolerance (commonly called celiac disease) is sensitivity to the protein gluten, which is commonly found in many types of grains (specifically wheat, barley, oats and rye).
Though the symptoms may sometimes appear similar, gluten intolerance is not a food allergy. The gluten sensitivity occurs when the body's immune system mistakenly identifies the protein gluten as foreign. This leads to inflammation and damage in the lower digestive tract (the intestines). A food allergy to wheat results in a true allergic response, with symptoms such as itchiness, hives and skin rashes.
Damage to the small intestine can occur when a person with gluten intolerance consumes even a small amount of gluten. This damage can result in a number of symptoms, including abdominal pain and diarrhea. The damage can also weaken the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from food. Over time, this can lead to malnutrition and other related conditions, such as anemia, weight loss and osteoporosis.
It is important to note that while some people with gluten intolerance suffer severe symptoms, others experience no symptoms at all. People who do not experience symptoms, however, may still suffer damage to the small intestine as the result of exposure to glutenDiagnosis of gluten intolerance usually involves blood tests and may include a biopsy of the small intestine.
Gluten intolerance can be successfully treated by completely removing all forms of gluten from the diet. This includes avoiding breads, cereals, cookies and all other types of foods or other products with wheat, barley or rye as an ingredient (including some beers, lipsticks, postage stamps, medications and vitamins).
Following a gluten-free diet is not a temporary measure, but a life-long change in lifestyle. Individuals with gluten intolerance must very carefully evaluate every type of food they come into contact with to make sure they prevent any exposure to gluten or gluten products. While completely removing gluten from the diet can be difficult, the treatment is usually effective at curing all related symptoms and even allows the damaged lower intestine to repair itself.
A number of conditions are associated with gluten intolerance. For instance, people who have gluten intolerance are at an increased risk of developing diabetes, some forms of cancer and other conditions.
People who suspect they may have gluten intolerance should immediately consult a physician. Symptoms may present themselves late in life and are known to sometimes appear after a traumatic event such as an injury, pregnancy or severe stress.
Treatment and prevention
As with food allergies, treatment of gluten intolerance is best achieved by completely removing gluten from the diet. If this is accomplished and maintained, gluten intolerant individuals should see all of the related symptoms subside.
In fact, maintaining a gluten-free diet eventually allows existing intestinal damage already caused by the disease to heal. This healing usually occurs in three to six months for younger people and after several years for older people. Young children who successfully implement a gluten-free diet often see positive changes in both physical symptoms and behavior. Growth spurts at this point are not uncommon.
Maintaining a gluten-free diet is not easy. Gluten is found in many different kinds of foods and all types of wheat, barley and rye should be avoided, as should oats for more highly susceptible individuals. Unfortunately, gluten is also frequently used in some seemingly unrelated products such as some lipstick, postage stamps, medications and vitamins.
Individuals with gluten intolerance should consult their physician and learn which foods and products are dangerous. They must also learn to always read ingredient labels and ask questions about food preparation at restaurants. Individuals should be sure to learn any alternate names of dangerous substances.
Although a gluten-free diet has restrictions, there are a wide range of foods available to someone with gluten intolerance. More and more retail food stores are stocking their shelves with foods that are gluten-free. Foods such as meats, fish, poultry, (most) dairy products, unprocessed fruits and vegetables, beans, rice and potatoes are all safe. Gluten-free flours made from rice, soy, corn and potato are available as alternatives. In addition, foods made from cornmeal are safe. There are also a number of gluten-free cookies, cereals, breads and pastas currently coming on to the market.
When traveling, people on a gluten-free diet may benefit from packing several snack bars to avoid having to purchase food that is not safe for consumption.
Aside from maintaining a gluten-free diet, individuals may also need to address any nutritional deficiencies that developed as a result of their condition. A physician can recommend specific vitamin and mineral supplements to counteract these deficiencies.
Any patient who fails to respond to a gluten-free diet should seek help from their physician. While the problem is likely a relatively minor issue (such as the unknowing ingestion of gluten), failure to respond may indicate an advanced form of gluten intolerance (e.g., refractory celiac disease) or other coexisting conditions.
Women who have a gluten intolerance while pregnant risk harming their unborn fetus or delivering prematurely if their intolerance is not properly controlled. Any woman with a gluten intolerance who plans to become pregnant