Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Those who are sensitive to gluten in their systems have what is known as Celiac Disease. What actually happens in the body is that the body’s normal immune system sees that protein as an intruder and attacks it. In the long term, this immune response damages the lining of the intestine, inhibits its ability to absorb nutrients and can cause bloating, diarrhea, weight loss, fatigue and anemia. Celiac can lead to more serious complications if left undiagnosed.
The good news is that Celiac Disease is pretty rare and only affects about 1% of the population in western countries. The exact cause of the disease is not known, but what is known shows a correlation between the genes, the gluten protein and environmental factors. You cannot catch Celiac from someone, though it could be passed on to you in your genes from a family member. But, how would you know if you had Celiac Disease and needed to go gluten-free?
Signs and Symptoms – Adults
Adults with Celiac often experience diarrhea, vomiting, fatigue and weight loss and feel bloated, nauseous, constipated or have generalized abdominal pain. Celiac can also cause some issues with the body that are not associated with the digestive tract, but stem from the body’s inability to absorb nutrients effectively. More than half of adults with Celiac often have or experience: anemia, bone density loss, bone softening, damage to tooth enamel, itchy or blistery skin rash, joint pain, ulcers in the mouth, headaches, fatigue, heartburn or acid reflux, nerve damage represented by numbness and tingling in the hands and/or feet, cognitive impairment and issues with balance.
Signs and Symptoms – Children
Young children under two years old may experience vomiting, nausea, diarrhea, poor appetite or muscle wasting. Also a swollen belly, like a pot belly, may indicate a gluten sensitivity in young children.
Older children may experience diarrhea, constipation, weight loss, irritability and neurological issues like ADHD, learning disabilities, headaches, seizures and lack of muscle coordination. Short stature and delayed puberty are also signs in older children.
Itchy Blistery Rash
Dermatitis herpetiformis is a rash associated with changes in the lining of the small intestine, which are identical to the changes in the lining associated with Celiac Disease. Celiac may not produce noticeable digestive issues, but instead, a person may experience an itchy, blistery rash on their elbows, knees, torso, scalp or buttocks.
See a Doctor if…
If you suspect you might have a gluten sensitivity, then see your doctor and they will be able to test you for it and diagnose you properly. If you suspect you are and go off gluten for a significant period of time before seeing your doctor, it can be very difficult to tell whether you are sensitive or not. If they diagnose you with Celiac, then they can help you to avoid foods with the gluten protein and prevent any nutritional deficiencies that may arise from such a dramatic change in diet.
Fashionable To Go Gluten Free
Lately, it has become all the rage to go gluten free in your diet, but there is not medical evidence that a gluten-free diet benefits you unless you have Celiac Disease or are Gluten-sensitive. This is good news for people who actually suffer from Celiac as gluten-free foods used to be hard to find.
“People who are sensitive to gluten may feel better, but a larger portion will derive no significant benefit from the practice. They’ll simply waste their money, because these products are expensive,” says Dr. Leffler, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
Unless you have Celiac Disease, you will likely derive zero benefit from a gluten-free diet. The Placebo Effect might convince you that you feel better, but your body chemistry and health will likely remain unchanged. The biggest thing you should do is have a serious discussion with your doctor and let them run some tests and accurately diagnose you before significantly changing your diet.
If you change your diet without good guidance from a doctor or nutritionist, you could run into vitamin deficiencies, since most wheat products in the US are fortified with vitamins, especially vitamin B. Also reducing or eliminating wheat and rye can also reduce your fiber intake. The average American already has a diet very low in fiber and reducing that further could cause other digestive issues on their own. When in doubt about any aspect of your health, see your physician and get some expert advice.