Gluten-free diets are all the rage, and reports of gluten sensitivity seem to be on the rise. Some may be incredulous about this increased incidence or feel the lifestyle is too restrictive. Regardless of anybody’s opinion, there is one population segment that takes gluten intolerance and elimination very seriously. For people with celiac disease, also known as celiac sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy, gluten-free is not a weight-loss fad. It’s a medical necessity.

What is Celiac Disease?

The small intestine is where most of the nutrients in our diet are absorbed for use by our bodies. Celiac disease is a digestive illness and autoimmune disorder that leads to damage in the small intestine when a patient consumes gluten. Upon gluten exposure, the portion of the intestinal wall that absorbs nutrients is attacked by the immune system. This immune reaction inflames the small intestine’s lining, preventing nutrient absorption and causing severe medical complications over time. While many people have no symptoms, most experience diarrhea. Anemia, bloating, fatigue, gas and osteoporosis are also celiac symptoms. The condition is usually diagnosed in childhood, but it can remain inactive until the adult onset of other extreme health problems or emotional stress.

What is Gluten?

Gluten refers to the proteins found in wheat—including durum, farina, farro, graham, semolina, spelt, wheatberries (rye, barley) and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye). Kneading dough develops the flour’s gluten, forming gluey strings that help baked goods maintain their shape. While oats are naturally free of gluten, oat products not labeled “gluten-free” may contain these proteins, as oats are often contaminated when grown beside glutinous grains. Most breads, beers, cereals, pastas, pastries, salad dressings, sauces and soups contain gluten. A silver lining around the prevalence of gluten-sensitive and gluten-intolerant diagnoses is the abundance of available gluten-free products. Since a strict gluten-free lifestyle excludes some essential nutrients, the diet must be supervised by a doctor, who will prescribe daily nutritional supplements.

If you suspect celiac sprue, consult with the digestive disease specialists at GI Associates this Celiac Awareness Month.

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