Gluten is a proteinaceous material present in a number of foods. It represents a threat for those who suffer from celiac disease.
Gluten: a seemingly innocuous threat
Who would have believed that such a common and usually harmless food component could cause so many problems for some individuals? For most people, eating gluten doesn’t present any threat to health and well-being. However, for those who suffer from celiac disease, ingesting gluten, even in minute quantities, can lead to serious problems.
Gluten is a proteinaceous material mainly found in cereal such as wheat, barley, rye and oats. It can be found in a number of foods on the market, even in foods we might not initially have expected to find them in, such as in ketchup, soya sauce and ice cream. Gluten can also be a component in certain medications.
Celiac disease used to be referred to as “gluten intolerance”. Today however, we know that this disease is much more than just a food intolerance. It is defined as the body’s inability to digest particular foods or their components. It involves a reaction by the digestive system and should not be confused with a food allergy which involves a reaction by the immune system.
The severity of food intolerance symptoms is usually proportional to the amount of food ingested. This is not necessarily so in the case of celiac disease. Celiac disease is rather an autoimmune disorder where several genetic, environmental and immune factors come into play. The presence of gluten, even in very small quantities, produces an immune response against the intestine, causing the immune system to attack the intestinal lining which the body perceives as a threat.
Moreover, it is important to make the distinction between celiac disease and an outright food allergy, which usually consists of different symptoms such as rashes, itching, swelling of the skin, face, tongue or throat, difficulty breathing, drop in blood pressure, fainting and, in the most extreme cases, death.
Celiac disease symptoms
Celiac disease can affect both children and adults and can take many forms, but its most common manifestations include the following signs and symptoms:
- abdominal pain
- oily stool
- feeling full
- weight loss
- loss of appetite
Gluten damages the intestinal lining of individuals who are affected by the disease. This partly explains the symptoms, but also the appearance of typical complications of the disease, such as:
- malabsorption of certain nutrients
- nutritional deficiencies
- delayed growth in children
- delayed puberty
- weak bones (osteoporosis)
- weak enamel
Celiac disease diagnosis
There are various tests available to confirm the diagnosis of celiac disease. In addition to asking you questions about your medical history and your symptoms, your doctor will no doubt want to have a sample of your blood analyzed to check for the presence of certain antibodies. If these antibodies are found in your blood, he/she can then have you pass another test: a biopsy.
This test consists of introducing a thin tube with a camera into your digestive system in order to remove a small piece of tissue from the intestine which will then be examined under a microscope. This technique enables the doctor to verify if the intestinal lining has been damaged by gluten.
A gluten-free diet
The key to managing celiac disease is to completely banish gluten from your diet for good. Individuals usually start to feel better two weeks after having started a gluten-free diet. In order to see significant improvement in their health, individuals who suffer from celiac disease must make major changes to their diet and strictly observe them. With time, most individuals adapt quite well to this new reality.
Before starting a gluten-free diet, be sure to get a medical diagnosis for celiac disease. Otherwise, you won’t get any benefit from it. Individuals can mistakenly believe that they have celiac disease since its symptoms are similar to those of other disorders.
Don’t hesitate to speak to your pharmacist for additional information about celiac disease.