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Happy Celiac Disease Awareness Month!

Erin Elberson Lyon, of Gluten Free Fitness, gives us the low down on celiac disease and gluten!

For the past couple of years, there have been all kinds of stories in the media about the gluten free diet. It’s been hyped as everything from a fabulous way to lose weight to an incredible way to eat clean.  The truth is that a gluten free diet is not a choice for 1 in 133 people.  It’s a medical necessity.  Let’s start with a few definitions.

What the heck is gluten?

Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, rye and barley.  It can also be found in products that do not contain these items, but have been processed in a factory that does, and on shared equipment.  (Also known as “cross-contamination” or “cross-contact”) Oats are commonly questioned.  Oats are naturally gluten free and great, just get certified gluten free oats from a dedicated facility.

What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a chronic, autoimmune intestinal disorder caused by these evil glutens. (I’m not sure if gluten can be pluralized, but I just did there.)  In essence, when your body recognizes the gluten proteins it goes into attack mode. Unfortunately the attack is on your intestinal lining.  This can damage the “villi” or absorptive surfaces in the small intestine.  Damage to the villi can then lead to bloating, gas, and the pooping.  Symptoms can vary greatly from person to person in severity and type.

Symptoms can include but are not limited to:

1.    Iron or vitamin deficiency
2.    Chronic fatigue or weakness (not the “too lazy to overcome couch gravity” kind, by the way)
3.    Abdominal pain, bloating, gas (the one I see the most whenever I get glutened)
4.    Reflux/heartburn
5.    Diarrhea/constipation
6.    Lactose intolerance
7.    Weight loss (due to lack of absorption of nutrients-NOT a good way to lose weight, my friends)
8.    Joint pain
9.    Bruising
10.    Headaches
11.    Depression
12.    And the list could go on……

Continued exposure to gluten can lead to absorptive issues with vitamins/minerals/good stuff.  This can in the long term result in osteoporosis, anemia, neurological conditions, other autoimmune disorders, and some cancers.

How common is celiac disease?
Way more common than the collective “they” used to think.  At this point it is estimated that approximately 1% of the US population (1 in 100 to 133 or so-give or take a few people) have celiac disease.  Many are undiagnosed, and many have been misdiagnosed with the garbage can of intestinal disorders, IBS.  Also known as “we don’t know what’s wrong with you.”  Or “I’m bloody stumped.”

How do you “get” it?
There is a large genetic component.  Once one person in a family is diagnosed, others usually are as well. My Dad always thought he just had a “bad stomach” until I was diagnosed.  You may also have the gene for celiac disease but never develop the condition.  It appears that you must have the gene, and then an environmental “trigger” may cause the onset of symptoms.  The trigger may be stress, diet, any number of things.

How do I get tested?
Visit your doctor.  DO NOT make any changes to your diet prior to seeing your doctor and getting tested.  If you go gluten free prior to testing, it will skew you results and create a pain in the butt for getting a solid diagnosis.  Your doctor may order blood tests, saliva tests, and/or an upper GI (endoscopy.)  They can do gene testing as well as testing for antibodies.  An endoscopy would take a look at the small intestine and assess if there is any damage, as well as provide biopsy samples.

So what do you do about it?
The “cure” is a gluten free diet for life.  It’s really not so bad, I promise.  People will say things like “oh my goodness, that’s horrible!” and make you feel really bad about it.  But really and truly, it’s not.  There are MANY naturally gluten free foods that will help you maintain great health, both with celiac and in a general sense.  The occasional gluten free treat like a purely elizabeth cookie or three is perfect. Don’t think you have to subsist on packaged gluten free macaroni and cheese, or pasta.  The old advice to shop the perimeter of the store is really true.  Back when I was diagnosed (I think 8 years ago now!) there were very few pre-made gluten free items.  The ones that existed were all starches, so even worse for you from a nutritional standpoint than wheat items.  Since that time, there have been great strides in using different whole grain gluten free flours and many companies who are providing higher nutritional value products.

Spread the awareness, and spread the gluten free love.  Granola all around.

Erin Elberson Lyon
Gluten Free Fitness

Quinoa, a superfood and naturally gluten-free grain, being harvested. (Photo courtesy of Vitaliy Prokopets for Andean Naturals)

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