Celiac Awareness Month: Beyond Gluten Intolerance
Every now and then you’ll eat something that doesn’t quite agree with your stomach. Loose stools, stomach pain, and generally feeling unwell can be something as simple as a 24-hour virus.
But what if it keeps happening? It could be celiac disease, a condition that’s steadily increasing around the world (1).
May highlights Celiac Disease Awareness Month, and in this article we’ll set the record straight on what it is, what it isn’t, symptoms, diet recommendations, and ways to get involved.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is a chronic, inflammatory digestive condition that affects about 1% of Western nations around the world (6). Those diagnosed with celiac have difficulty digesting gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and some oats.
Gluten can also be found in many manufactured products, such as lipsticks, vitamins, toothpaste, deodorants, lotions, and laundry detergents (7).
It’s also known by other names like:
- Gluten-sensitive enteropathy
- Nontropical sprue
How it works: Your digestive tract is made up of multiple different parts. Starting at your mouth, food and drink will travel through your esophagus and into your stomach.
Your small intestine absorbs as much nutrients as it can through finger-like protrusions called villi, food goes through your large intestine to become waste.
When someone with celiac disease eats foods containing gluten, the reaction their body has damages the villi in the small intestines. These small cells help absorb nutrients, so the damage caused by celiac makes it difficult for the person to absorb any nutrients from their food (7).
How is celiac disease different from a wheat allergy or a gluten intolerance? Someone who suffers from a wheat allergy may simply experience watery eyes, or an itchy skin rash.
A gluten intolerance may trigger tiredness or abdominal pain. While this seems similar to celiac symptoms, these reactions don’t cause harm to the small intestine villi (2).
The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, but certain factors seem to offer clues. Eating foods that contain gluten can trigger an immune response when it reaches the small intestine.
Celiac disease is believed to be an autoimmune disorder, when your body overreacts to otherwise harmless allergens and begins to destroy healthy tissue (5).
It’s also believed to be hereditary (4), passed down through family generations.
Signs of Celiac Disease
What’s the difference between an occasional stomach ache and a chronic digestive disease?
Celiac disease affects people differently, so it’s often hard to diagnose. Some people show no symptoms at all. Children with celiac disease may have slightly different symptoms than adults, including (8):
- Chronic diarrhea
- Pale, fatty or foul-smelling stools
- Weight loss
- Stunted growth
- Failure to thrive
- Behavioral issues
- Tooth enamel erosion
Similarly, adults symptoms can include:
- Migraines or seizures
- Joint or bone pain
- Canker sores
- Anxiety or depression
- Itchy rash on elbow, knees, torso or buttocks
- Infertility or miscarriages
If you’ve been experiencing these symptoms for a few weeks, schedule an appointment with your doctor for testing and next steps.
Celiac Disease Diet
While there is no cure for celiac, embracing a gluten-free diet seems to make the biggest, most sustainable impact.
And because those with celiac disease are at a greater risk of lymphoma over those whose intestines have fully healed (6), it’s especially important to encourage anti-inflammatory foods that can help heal the intestines.
Studies have also investigated how a gluten free diet affects those diagnosed with celiac disease. Research is conflicting with how gluten specifically affects celiac disease, as well as whether it’s associated with other autoimmune diseases (7).
What are foods that can help heal your body? This may surprise you, but there are actually many foods that are naturally gluten-free (9), like:
- Red meats
With a little creativity, you can mix and match these ingredients to create delicious, healthy, and filling meals.
Herbs and spices are also naturally gluten-free, which can add flavor to meals without the processed seasonings or dressings.
May is Celiac Disease Awareness Month, and there are many ways to get involved (10).
What are ways you can raise awareness of celiac disease? Some ideas to try are:
- Walk or run in a fundraising event
- Put up a sign in your yard about celiac disease
- Opt-in or subscribe to newsletters on celiac disease
- Send a “thank-you” note to the doctor that diagnosed you
- Place a green ribbon on your shirt
- Watch and share a video on celiac disease on your social media platform
- Ask for a gluten-free menu when dining out at a restaurant
- Host a gluten-free bake sale at your local school
- Visit a local celiac disease support group and ask how you can help
These are just some of the many ways you can get involved this May.
Digestion problems come in all forms. Acute infections like stomach viruses can be intense, but usually resolve themselves on their own.
Other digestive conditions, like celiac disease, are chronic. Symptoms can appear in childhood or adulthood, and can be minor or severe.
It’s important to understand how serious untreated celiac disease can be. Because of the damage it does to your small intestine, it directly impacts how well you’re able to absorb nutrients. In turn, this affects your health.
So far, eating a gluten-free diet seems to bring the most noticeable change. Avoiding gluten and incorporating more fruits, vegetables, rice and corn can help sooth your body and keep autoimmune reactions at a minimum.
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May is Celiac Awareness Month. Be sure to share this article on your social to help spread the word!
✝✝This noted statement is based on independent research and is not necessarily the opinion of the author