There are a number of reasons why someone would adopt a gluten-free diet, says St. Luke’s clinical dietitian Brenda Anderson, RD, LD, CD, CDE. “On one end of the spectrum are people who simply feel better when they don’t eat wheat products, while at the other end are those who cannot tolerate even the tiniest trace of gluten,” she says. Along that spectrum are many others with varying degrees of gluten sensitivity. For them, foods containing wheat, rye or barley can trigger bloating, headaches, joint pain, low energy and “foggy brain.” As uncomfortable as these symptoms are, they don’t compare with the life-threatening repercussions of celiac disease, an autoimmune disease in which the body attacks itself.
Progressive, chronic, debilitating
For the roughly three million Americans with this chronic, progressive condition, the only treatment is total elimination of gluten. “When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the lining of their small intestine becomes inflamed and damaged,” says Max Miranda, MD, St. Luke's Gastroenterology Associates. “Over time, chronic inflammation destroys the lining of the small bowel, reducing the area through which nutrients can be absorbed by the body.”
Left untreated, celiac disease can lead to multiple problems, such as chronic diarrhea, malnutrition, unhealthy weight loss, osteoporosis, extreme fatigue, joint pain, tooth discoloration, infertility, delayed growth and certain cancers, including lymphoma and intestinal carcinoma.
Whether you have full-blown celiac disease or gluten sensitivity, the treatment plan is to follow a gluten-free diet. The first step is to avoid any product made with wheat, rye, barley and some types of oats. But to truly rid your system of gluten, Anderson says, you need to read labels and learn about gluten sources, such as processed cold cuts, salad dressing, beer, vitamins, certain vinegars, licorice and even the adhesive used on envelopes and stamps.
Healing the body
The good news is that by reading labels, educating yourself, planning ahead and staying motivated, it’s possible to eliminate gluten from your system. “Because the body replaces the lining of the gut every two to three weeks, most patients will start to feel better in a matter of weeks,” Dr. Miranda says. Even better news is that celiac disease can be diagnosed with a lab test. If you or a family member is experiencing abdominal pain or other unexplained symptoms, talk with your primary care physician or contact St. Luke's Gastroenterology Associates at 218.249.7940.