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Is gluten getting you down?

Gluten intolerance is an inherited autoimmune disorder characterized by sensitivity to gluten, a protein found primarily in wheat, rye and barley. Oats used to be considered a culprit, but are no longer.

When people with this condition eat gluten, their immune systems are activated and the resulting inflammatory response damages or destroys the villi that line the small intestines and allow nutrients to be absorbed.

Incidence of gluten intolerance is widespread. Upward of 15 percent of Americans suffer with this condition, but only about five percent of these people have been diagnosed and treated.

According to experts at the University of Chicago Medical Center, a patient usually suffers with symptoms for an average of 11 years before gluten intolerance is identified, and the typical child sees eight pediatricians before getting an accurate diagnosis.

Cases in point:

  • Scott had abdominal pain, bloating and diarrhea and was diagnosed with ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, kidney disease and cancer.
  • Diana had iron-deficiency anemia along with extreme fatigue and diffuse pain, symptoms she was told were all in her head.
  • Laura had chronic itchy rashes that were identified as dermatitis.
  • And 12-year-old Sarah was plagued with hallucinations and given antipsychotic drugs.

All of these individuals spent many miserable years trying to get to the bottom of their problems. Yet, in the end, each of them discovered what they actually had was gluten intolerance, or celiac disease.

A chameleon of a disease

Common symptoms for many patients, especially children, include:

  • Bloating
  • Abdominal pain
  • Canker sores
  • Diarrhea
  • Constipation

Others have no gastrointestinal issues, though. Instead, they may experience seemingly unrelated symptoms such as:

  • Weight loss
  • Stunted growth
  • Iron-deficiency anemia
  • Bone pain
  • Fatigue
  • Thinning hair
  • Itchy skin

But all of these are signs of nutritional deficiencies brought on by malabsorption due to damaged villi.

Affected individuals may also have neurological problems, such as:

  • Numbness
  • Depression
  • Anxiety
  • Attention-deficit/hyperactive disorder
  • Autism
  • Seizures
  • Dementia
  • Psychotic episodes

Some researchers theorize that these are caused by poorly digested proteins that, due to damage to the intestines (leaky gut), pass into the bloodstream. They are then able to cross the blood-brain barrier and bind to opioid receptors, where they wreak neurological havoc.

Whatever the reason, patients who get off gluten often have remarkable improvements.

Rule out gluten intolerance first

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, it is important that you rule out gluten intolerance at once, for the longer it goes untreated, the more serious the damage to your intestines and your overall health.
For example, celiac disease dramatically increases your likelihood of developing autoimmune disorders such as type 1 diabetes and autoimmune hepatitis and thyroid disease. It raises the risk of osteoporosis, lymphoma and cancer of the gastrointestinal tract. And, thanks to ongoing nutrient deprivation, it places you at risk for virtually all degenerative diseases.

Don’t wait for your doctor to recommend testing. Most of them are so focused on symptoms that they don’t even consider anything as “unimportant” as diet.

Ask for a blood test for antigliadin antibodies and endomysium antibodies. If either test comes back positive, request a celiac panel to confirm the diagnosis (although intestinal biopsies are considered the gold standard of testing, these blood tests are pretty accurate).

You can also take matters into your own hands and try an elimination diet.

Simply stop eating all wheat, rye and barley for four weeks, then slowly add each of them back into your diet. If you feel better off gluten, and symptoms return as you reintroduce it, bingo!

A sure cure

The good news is that gluten intolerance is one of the few medical conditions for which we have a cure that is 100-percent effective for 100 percent of affected patients.

All you have to do is eliminate gluten from your life. This is the only thing that will allow the villi to recover and regenerate.

Wheat, in particular, can be challenging for most Americans because breads, cereals, crackers and the like have become dietary staples. Beyond the obvious sources, gluten is also present in many sauces, flavorings and prepared foods, including soy sauce, beer and frozen french fries.

You do have options. For example, you can buy flour and baked goods made of brown rice, almonds, potatoes, quinoa and other gluten-free grains. And, thanks to increasing awareness, many products are now carrying gluten-free labels.

Furthermore, this way of eating is healthier overall. The things you’ll be eliminating – breads, pastries, pastas, etc. – should be off-limits to everyone dealing with weight or blood-sugar issues, whether they’re gluten-sensitive or not.

Because this condition is a recipe for nutritional deficiency, it’s imperative that you also take a good daily multivitamin and mineral supplement, along with additional vitamin D, folic acid, B-complex vitamins and a probiotic supplement. Look for these in health-food stores.

Should you go gluten-free?

At my clinic, we test our patients with suspicious symptoms and, if indicated, counsel them in appropriate diet changes.

Sure, a gluten-free diet can be inconvenient and a challenge to stick with, but it’s absolutely worth it (for a comprehensive list of gluten-free foods, visit www.celiac.com).

Studies show that affected people who eliminate this protein eventually recover completely.

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