Gluten is a dietary protein composite found in grains, barley and rye. It is responsible for giving many baked goods their characteristic elasticity and is found in a wide variety of foods, including many that don’t appear related to grains, and is often used as a stabilizing or thickening agent. Foods that may have been cross-contaminated and other products such as cosmetics can also be a concern for those seeking to avoid gluten.
Reactions to gluten can come in the form of either the severe Celiac Disease, or a relatively less serious form of gluten intolerance. Both can be managed with a strict gluten-free diet for life, although in rare cases of untreated Celiac Disease the damage done to the body is not reversible.
Celiac Disease is a genetic predisposition resulting in an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine. When an affected individual consumes the protein gliadin (a gluten protein), their immune system reacts by inducing an inflammatory response in the small intestine, which can ultimately lead to damage and atrophy of the intestinal villi. The villi in the small intestine serve to increase its surface area and aid in the absorption of vitamins and nutrients. When these villi are damaged, the body loses the ability to efficiently absorb certain nutrients, vitamins and minerals leading to malnourishment. This state of malnourishment can be magnified by increased bacterial growth in the intestine.
In addition, sufferers of Celiac Disease can experience chronic diarrhea, as well as general gastrointestinal pain and bloating, as well as the development of lactose intolerance. If left untreated, Celiac Disease can lead to an increased risk of gastrointestinal cancer, neurological complications, anemia and osteoporosis. If untreated during childhood, children may not reach an average height due to malnutrition.
Less than 1% of the population suffers from Celiac Disease.
Gluten intolerance (or sensitivity) is characterized by inflammation both inside and outside the intestinal tract and carries with it less severe symptoms. Gluten intolerance does not lead to atrophy of the villi in the small intestine. More people are gluten intolerant than Celiac, but the symptoms of this sensitivity can still be difficult to live with.
Symptoms of gluten intolerance or Celicac Disease can include unexplained weight loss, fatigue, diarrhea, aching joints, depression, headaches, dental anomalies, food cravings and an inability to focus. As many of these symptoms are general and wide-ranging, it’s a good idea to see your doctor about being tested for Celiac Disease, which can be done through a blood sample or endoscopy. While no conclusive test for gluten sensitivity exists, those who suspect they are sensitive may decide to experiment with a gluten-free diet.
Nowadays a gluten-free diet is not as difficult to maintain as it once was, due in part for a growing demand for gluten-free alternatives. Avoiding wheat, barley and rye is the main priority, however, gluten is often found in unexpected places. Careful attention must be paid to all labels when buying groceries, and the internet is a great source for researching products you find yourself unsure of.
Bread is often one of the most difficult things to give up when avoiding gluten but there are alternatives available. Breads cooked from alternate flours, such as rice or almond are widely available as well as products such as muffins and crackers. There is also a growing body of research to suggest that even those with Celiac disease can eat sourdough bread. True sourdough bread is made using a lactic acid bacterium that breaks down gluten during its lengthy fermentation, and the resulting product can contain gluten in less than 20ppm. However, some store-bought sourdough bread may not be left to ferment long enough or flavoring may have been added afterward to mimic the taste. If you decide to eat sourdough bread it’s important to either do your research or bake your own at home.by