Do you suspect pasta, bread, and crackers are making you sick? You may not have a name for your condition, but one thing’s for sure: avoiding grains is challenging.
Many people blame wheat, found in most of the grain-based products, for causing their abdominal pain, gas, bloating and diarrhea.
“But more likely, gluten is what’s irritating your gut,” says Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, author of the American Dietetic Association Guide to Better Digestion.
Gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, is the common denominator in most of the grain-based products we eat, such as cereals, breads, and pasta.
Simple gluten intolerance can be uncomfortable, but the symptoms are fleeting, Bonci says. The good news is that gluten intolerance is not a food allergy, and eating gluten does not usually cause damage – unless you have celiac disease.
Celiac Disease: When Symptoms Are More Serious
More serious gluten intolerance is called celiac disease. That’s when gluten actually triggers the body’s immune system. When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the villi — tiny, fingerlike projections in the small intestine that absorb the nutrients from food. For this reason it’s considered an autoimmune disease.
Celiac disease, which also goes by the names gluten-sensitive enteropathy, nontropical sprue, and celiac sprue, is a genetic disease. This means it can run in families. And it has far-reaching effects.
“Celiac disease is not just a disease of the gut,” says Shelley Case, R.D., nutrition consultant and author of Gluten Free Diet: A Comprehensive Resource Guide. “It’s a multi-system, multi-symptom disease with serious implications.”
Celiac disease is linked to malnutrition that can lead to anemia, osteoporosis, depression, behavioral problems, and stunted growth in children, among other problems. People who have celiac disease may also have other autoimmune conditions, such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis.
Celiac Disease: An Unrecognized Problem
Until fairly recently, celiac disease was considered rare among Americans. In 2003, the results of a large, multi-center study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found celiac disease in one in 133 Americans. Among those, with parents, siblings, or children with celiac disease, up to one in 22 people in the study had it.
As many as three million Americans have celiac disease. Most of them don’t know it, largely because celiac disease can be difficult to nail down.
“It takes most adults about 12 years to get a definitive diagnosis of celiac disease,” says Michelle Pietzak, MD, a pediatric gastroenterologist, professor of pediatrics at the Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California, and one of the authors of the landmark study.
If you think you suffer from celiac disease or gluten intolerance, consider going on a gluten – free diet.