About celiac disease
Nearly 2 million people in the United States have celiac disease, a digestive disorder that occurs when the immune system overreacts to gluten in the digestive tract, damaging the small intestine. For every person diagnosed, as many as 80 more may go undiagnosed.
Celiac disease, which often is inherited, can lead to malnutrition. The gene that is associated with celiac disease can be triggered by stress, poor diet or severe illness such as a viral infection. Patients are typically tested for celiac disease using a blood screening test and follow-up tests including a biopsy of the small intestine.
Symptoms of gluten sensitivity differ in patients and include skin rashes, weight loss, digestive difficulties, anemia, chronic fatigue, bone pain and muscle cramps. Many of these symptoms can lead to misdiagnosis of other digestive disorders such as IBS, Crohn’s disease, as well as fertility issues and chronic migraines.
The best medical treatment is avoidance of gluten altogether; celiac disease has no cure, but in the absence of gluten the body can heal itself. Some doctors may recommend the use of digestive enzymes, probiotics and multivitamins to help the healing process and ensure dietary needs are met.
Common gluten-containing foods
Here is a short list of common foods that often contain gluten. Many food manufacturers include food allergens on their labels or label foods specifically as gluten free or containing gluten.
Wheat (including cereal, crackers, white and wheat breads, flours, croutons and crumbs)
Oats (though oats are gluten-free, many brands are processed on equipment that is also used to process wheat)
Soy sauce, unless the package says gluten-free
Packaged or dry gravy
Packaged or dry sauces and seasonings
Grain alcohols (vodka, gin, malt beverages)
“I didn’t realize I had issues with gluten until I got on the diet and lost weight,” Spetter said.
She was one of a dozen or so residents who gathered at Farmer’s Natural Foods store last Thursday to learn more about gluten intolerance and how it affects their health and well being. Roughly one in 133 people in the U.S. have celiac disease, according to the Celiac Sprue Association
Dr. Douglass Hutto, a naturopath from Lifewell Health and Wellness Group, led the discussion. He explained that people have different levels of intolerance to gluten, but the symptoms present themselves in similar ways, and they all begin in the gut, where digestion takes place.
“When the immune system doesn’t recognize [gluten] as food, it attacks it inside the villi,” fingerlike projections that line the small intestine and draw nutrients from food into the body, Hutto said.
When the immune system responds to gluten in this way, the result is tissue inflammation. Swollen villi can’t deliver nutrients to the body, so some gluten-sensitive people can become malnourished. Others experience skin rashes because gluten has found its way into the bloodstream and nestled between cells near the skin’s surface, he said.
While some attendees expressed sensitivity to gluten ranging from allergies to celiac disease — the most serious form — others came to learn more about the issue and its possible relation to other conditions. Several asked about irritable bowel syndrome and acid reflux disease, which Hutto said can all be tied into the mechanics of the body.
“They all begin with digestive weakness,” Hutto said. Low levels of hydrochloric acid in the stomach can lead to poorly digested food, which in turn leads to acid reflux and IBS issues. Hutto suggests people with poor digestion who eat high-gluten diets may become gluten-sensitive over time because the body can’t rid itself of the protein.
Hutto added that while gluten sensitivity appears to be genetic for some people, for others the sudden onset of symptoms may be triggered by stress.
“There’s a gene for everything, and stress an activate dormant genes that show susceptibility,” Hutto said. But, he adds, these genes can be turned off again through stress management. Hutto’s work as a naturopath includes teaching stress management techniques to patients and he shared several tips with attendees during the meeting.
While not promising a reduction in symptoms or a cure for celiac disease or gluten sensitivity — currently there is no medical cure for celiacs — Hutto said stress management and maintaining a gluten-free diet are essential to staying well.
“The obvious solution is to avoid gluten-containing products,” he said.
Farmer’s Natural Foods will continue to offer space for people who want to form a monthly group. Spetter said in addition to attending meetings, she’ll continue to search for the one thing that’s eluded her since going gluten-free.
“It’s been a slow process. I haven’t perfected it yet,” she said. “The biggest struggle is finding a bread recipe.”
More information on celiac disease may be found online or at Farmer’s Natural Foods, which carries several types of gluten-free items.