You might be wondering why there are so many “gluten-free” products in supermarkets these days. The reason is simple: it’s due to an explosion in the number of people who have been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, an autoimmune disorder that is characterized by an intolerance to gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley.
Now you might be thinking something like, “Intolerance to wheat? That’s crazy. Wheat’s a whole grain, and those are healthy — everyone says so. This must be a mistake.”
Believe me, I was skeptical myself at first. But I’ve dealt with hundreds of people who discovered that gluten was making them sick. Kara and her daughter, Isabelle, are perfect examples.
Kara brought little Isabelle to my office when she was only three years old. Isabelle was a sweetheart, but small for her age and a very restless girl, unable to pay attention to anything for more than a few minutes. When Kara and I discussed her daughter’s medical history, I was surprised to hear such a long list of health issues for someone so young. Obviously, Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) was disrupting Isabelle’s life, but it seemed that digestive disorders were also causing problems, including stomach aches, vomiting, and diarrhea alternating with constipation. I was also concerned about her being on the low end of the growth charts, more in keeping with a two-year-old than a child about to turn four.
Following recommendations from the pediatrician, psychiatrist, and gastroenterologist, Isabelle was taking several medications, none of which seemed to be helping. “I’m at my wit’s end,” Kara announced. “We are so careful about our diet — very little sugar or processed foods, no fast foods, only whole grains, lean meats, and organic fruits and vegetables. But no matter what we do, Izzy just keeps getting worse. Her Sunday school teacher recommended you, but I can’t imagine what you’re going to do. The poor child has had every test known to man and nothing helps.”
I asked Kara if she herself had any health problems and she shrugged. “Not really. I worry about Izzy too much, that’s all.” And then she confided that she did experience uncomfortable bloating and flatulence after most meals — “But that’s just embarrassing, not a health issue.”
Really? To me, seeing a mother and daughter with gastrointestinal problems definitely was a health issue. Izzy’s blood test for Celiac Disease came back positive, as did a biopsy of her small intestine. I also suggested Kara be tested as well, since Celiac Disease is a genetic condition. Again, both came back positive.
“I’ve never even heard of Celiac Disease,” Kara told me later. “And I don’t think any of the doctors we saw had either. It’s such a relief to know what’s wrong. Now we can do something about it.”
Celiac Disease: A Silent Epidemic
One of the most startling pieces of medical news I’ve seen lately came in the form of a large study, showing that initial estimates of the number of Celiac patients were far too low. Instead of the original 1 in every 10,000 Americans, the actual number of people with Celiac Disease is closer to 1 in every 133!
For Celiac Disease sufferers, even a tiny amount of gluten triggers a reaction that tramples the tiny, hair-like villi lining the small intestine, making it difficult for them to absorb nutrients. So, an individual with Celiac Disease could eat the healthiest diet in the world, but end up with malnutrition. No wonder there are between 250 and 300 different symptoms of Celiac Disease, ranging from digestive woes – like bloating, heartburn, diarrhea, constipation and gas – to skin disorders, cancer, diabetes, neurological difficulties, early osteoporosis, fatigue, and bone or joint pain. Not surprisingly, in children, Celiac Disease is usually marked by developmental problems, such as failure to grow and/or digestive issues — again due to malabsorption. Oddly, many people with Celiac Disease have no symptoms … yet. Or they may be misdiagnosed with something like irritable bowel syndrome or indigestion, without realizing that there’s a much more serious condition lurking in the background.
More Reasons to Get Rid of Gluten
In addition to Celiac Disease, there’s gluten sensitivity and/or intolerance, usually indicated by an undesirable reaction to gluten. Instead of Celiac symptoms, a sensitive individual may experience mood swings, depression, difficulty concentrating, or changes in behavior. Experts estimate that as many as 20 million Americans who do not have Celiac Disease are sensitive to gluten.
In addition, a separate disorder — wheat allergy — can cause everything from skin rashes to asthma. Wheat allergy is thought to be far less common than Celiac Disease or gluten sensitivity, but it can lead to life-threatening consequences, including anaphylactic shock.
Although there’s no cure for Celiac Disease, it’s possible to avoid symptoms by eliminating all gluten from the diet. Like any major dietary shift, this may seem overwhelming at first. But it can be done. Trust me! After some experimentation, people do learn how to avoid gluten. And the best part is that once they discover how much better they feel living gluten-free, they wish they’d done it long ago.
“New and Improved” Wheat Really Isn’t
How did a staple food like wheat turn out to be the enemy? After all, wheat is a complex carbohydrate. It is exactly the type of food we’ve been told for years was a healthful alternative to simple carbs. In the case of wheat, part of the problem has to do with factory agriculture — or Big Farm, as I often call it. In the rush for more, more, more — whether it’s heftier heifers, chunkier chickens or whopping wheat harvests — scientists have manipulated diets and genetic codes, creating “food” that is a distant relative of the original.
Our bodies might be able to digest the gluten in wheat that was grown 100 years ago, but they cannot tolerate the super-duper, genetically modified (GM) gluten available today. So, although Celiac Disease has been around for centuries, the fact that it suddenly has become so common could be due to the genetic “improvements” in wheat. Just one of those alterations, for example, has made wheat more potent than pure table sugar when it comes to raising blood sugar levels!
Is It Celiac or Something Else?
The best way to determine if you have either full-blown Celiac Disease or gluten intolerance is a blood test that looks for specific antibodies. If the blood test is positive, your physician will want to do a biopsy of the small intestine to confirm the diagnosis. There are also genetic tests, but I’ve found that the blood tests and biopsy are usually sufficient.
If you have no symptoms yourself, but have a first- or second-degree relative — child, parent, sibling, aunt, uncle or cousin — who has been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, it’s possible that you may have the symptom-free version. Even without symptoms, Celiac Disease damages the intestinal tract and steals nutrients. Testing will tell you if you need to avoid gluten to prevent more serious problems from developing.
The process of being tested for Celiac Disease is pretty straightforward, but it takes the average adult an estimated 11 years of living with symptoms before he or she is diagnosed. Oftentimes, this happens because they either ignore the warning signs or their doctor just isn’t aware of Celiac, and medical tests are not ordered to detect it. You can click here to download a special report that walks you through details of the process of being tested for Celiac Disease, and what to do once you know your results — including what you can eat and can’t eat, how to shop in the grocery store, and what to do when you eat out and travel.
Wheat, Wheat Everywhere
Most Celiac patients I’ve worked with are very upset when I tell them they need to completely eliminate wheat from their diets. So, I remind them that nearly everyone these days is on some sort of special diet — or should be. Fortunately, there are quite a few gluten-free foods available today.
Beyond those products, though, you will have to play detective. Gluten often goes incognito, hiding behind names like “hydrolyzed vegetable flavoring” or “textured vegetable protein.” That’s why I recommend sticking to the outer aisles of the supermarket, where naturally gluten-free produce and meat are located. The inner aisles, which usually contain processed and prepared foods, are much more likely to contain wheat or hidden gluten.
Keep an open mind about alternative grains, too. Most patients think rice is the only complex carbohydrate option when products like salba, millet, and amaranth are available in health food stores and online. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how tasty these grains are. And there’s a definite benefit to looking beyond rice for whole grains. Researchers at New York’s Celiac Disease Center found that patients who consumed gluten-free grains improved their overall nutrient intake.
Supplement Support for Celiac Disease
Multivitamins are a must for anyone with Celiac Disease or gluten-/wheat-related ailments. First, since the nutrient-absorbing villi are not able to do their job, Celiac sufferers are normally deficient in important nutrients. And ironically, many gluten-free foods have less vitamins and fiber than standard fare. So a high-quality multivitamin should be on the top of the list.
Other supplements should include any nutrients that show up as deficiencies in the blood panel. For example, elements of the B vitamin complex, iron, vitamin D, and calcium are commonly depleted in individuals with Celiac Disease.
Supplementing your diet with appropriate nutrients can make a dramatic difference in health. B vitamins, for example, were found to protect individuals with Celiac Disease against high levels of homocysteine, a substance that is a risk factor for heart disease. Homocysteine tends to be elevated in Celiac patients.
Please keep in mind that this is a very brief overview of Celiac Disease and related conditions. For further reading on the symptoms of the disease and what to do if you have it, download this free report now. There are also some excellent books and a number of websites devoted to helping restore the health of individuals with this disease. If you suspect you or a loved one may be having problems with wheat and/or gluten, please get tested first and do everything you can to steer clear of these substances.
The last time I saw Izzy, I was quite impressed by how much she’d grown. For a little girl who wept when she was told pizza was off limits, she certainly didn’t seem to be missing it a few months later. “I feel happy inside, Doctor!” she exclaimed during our office visit. “So I don’t need pizza anymore!”