‘Gluten’ is a word that most of us in this day and age are familiar with. Comedians love the subject, bakeries proudly offer gluten free options, and the label ‘gluten-free’ is greatly sought after. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye. We all knew whole wheat products as being a part of the food pyramid and a staple of our diets, yet now we are being told to be wary of it- why is this?
Celiac disease (CD) is an autoimmune condition in which the body attacks its own small intestine in the presence of gluten. Gluten’s protein structure (gliadin) is very similar to that of our small intestine’s enzymes (transglutaminase), so the immune system gets confused. The problem with this is that the small intestine is where our bodies absorb the majority of nutrients from food. The other problem is that the small intestine is where 70-80% of our immune system resides. With the small intestine damaged, the body begins to become nutrient deficient and inflamed. This results in a wide range of symptoms and long-term complications.
Symptoms of celiac disease can involve gastrointestinal symptoms associated with malabsorption, including:
- Steatorrhea (oily stool)
- Weight loss
- Failure to thrive
It can also involve non-gastrointestinal symptoms such as:
- Iron deficiency
- Aphthous stomatitis (canker sores)
- Chronic fatigue
- Short stature
- Reduced bone density
- Brain fog / Mental clarity problems
- Anxiety / Depression
Sensitivities to gluten used to be considered relatively rare and were not a major concern until recent decades. Rates of these sensitivities have been steadily increasing during this time period. Celiac disease has increased in frequency by 7.5% per year over the last 30 or so years according to this 2020 meta-analysis. The regions studied were in Europe, North America, and Oceania. From this data, we know that the average annual rates of diagnosis are as follows: 7.8 per 100,000 men, 17.4 per 100,000 women, and 21.3 per 100,000 children. The majority of those affected by celiac disease are clearly women and children.
One does not need to have celiac disease in order to be affected by gluten. While only 1% of the United States population has a diagnosis of CD, recent studies show that up to 6% of the population may be affected by non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). Symptoms of NCGS can include:
- Abdominal pain
- Altered bowel function
- Joint or bone pain
- Mood disorders
- Skin manifestations such as rash or eczema
- Leaky gut / Intestinal permeability
Nailing down gluten as the culprit for these symptoms can be difficult. The symptoms can occur up to days after ingesting gluten, making it hard to make the connection between them. These symptoms may also be related to other gastrointestinal conditions. Do you experience any number of the symptoms discussed in this article? You may be sensitive to gluten or a related ingredient. Fill out the form at the bottom of this page so we can begin tackling your health goals together.
The Celiac Disease Foundation estimates that 2.5 million Americans are living with undiagnosed celiac disease, leaving them vulnerable to developing long-term complications. Due to the genetic nature of the disease, those with a first-degree relative (parent or sibling) living with celiac have a 1 in 10 risk of also developing it.
So, why are the rates of gluten sensitivity rising so rapidly? There are a number of theories, and they are all regarding environmental factors. Given the rate of increase, this dramatic change in CD could not be caused by genetics, though it does require a genetic predisposition (HLA DQ 2/8). Environmental factors affect how our genes are expressed through a process called ‘epigenetics’. All autoimmune disorders have a genetic component, yet they are ultimately triggered through an environmental exposure of some sort. The rates of all autoimmune disorders have been increasing along with celiac.
What is fascinating is that 60% of those who went on a GF diet for an entire year did not recover their gut health! This should not come as a surprise because removing the trigger does not stop the inflammatory and autoimmune process. This is why functional medicine shines! Working with someone who can determine your other triggers and use diet and supplements to wind down the immune system is a step above just going gluten free. If you have gone gluten free but you are still struggling there is hope! Don’t give up. We have seen great transformations by taking your efforts one step further.
Do you want to assess your risk of developing Celiac and determine if you have a gluten sensitivity/wheat allergy? Contact our office by filling out the form at the bottom of this page.