Celiac Disease: Interested in a Functional approach? Start Here.

 In Digestive System

A disorder that is now understood to be an autoimmune reaction to the protein, gluten, celiac disease was first identified more than 8,000 years ago. Much later in the 1st Century A.D., a Greek physician wrote about this particular disease process in a book entitled “The Coeliac Affection.”  In his book he describes this condition: “If the stomach be retentive of the food and if it pass through undigested and crude, and nothing ascends into the body, we call such person coeliacs.”  Over the past few decades, there’s been a sharp uptick in the way scientists and doctors understand the symptoms of celiac disease and how it can manifest across a spectrum of individuals. With this understanding has come the realization that celiac disease — along with a handful of related disorders such a gluten intolerance and food allergies — can lead to long-term and short-term adverse effects.

How Many People Have Celiac Disease? 

According to recent estimates, diagnosis rates for celiac disease have increased dramatically over the past 50+ years. This figure equates to just under one percent of adults in the United States having this diagnosis. However, many health professionals believe that number could actually be much higher as there is likely to be a number of people who currently have celiac disease that haven’t been diagnosed yet or they are facing similar health issues. 

Celiac Disease Defined

A serious autoimmune gut disorder, celiac disease occurs within the body after predisposed individuals consume the gluten protein.  This protein can be found in hundreds, if not thousands, of foods that contain rye, wheat, and barley grains. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, people who have celiac disease can suffer from a wide swath of symptoms that can range from stomach discomfort to chronic fatigue. Those who have an intolerance to gluten but who haven’t been formally diagnosed often suffer in a similar fashion. 

What are Some Symptoms of Celiac Disease? 

Compounds within gluten, such as gliadin, have been shown to be behind an increase in the release of cytokine chemicals through genetic up-regulation. It is this reaction that causes inflammation and the autoimmune reactions that are found in people with celiac disease. Today, medical experts think that many people with celiac disease have a genetic predisposition to the disorder. Though having a family member with the disease increases the odds of someone also being diagnosed with the condition, it’s not a guarantee. 

Celiac disease symptoms can be divided into those that are common, and generally less serious, and those that are less common but typically more serious in nature. It’s important to note that the following list of symptoms is far from inclusive. Many health professionals today believe that there are hundreds of symptoms associated with celiac disease. One reason for this is that the disease affects people in various ways and at different levels. 

In general, a person who suffers from celiac disease can experience a wide-variety of symptoms, which may make the diagnosis difficult to confirm in some cases.  Some of these symptoms include, but are not limited to: abdominal pain, nutritional deficits, abnormal changes in weight, difficulty with concentration, diarrhea, abdominal cramping, canker sores in the mouth, skin changes/thinning hair, and joint pain.  

Patients with celiac disease have a higher risk of other disease processes which include other autoimmune disorders: Type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, and multiple sclerosis.   Other conditions that have associations with celiac disease include: ADHD, osteoporosis, inflammatory skin conditions, and certain heart conditions.  

Treating Celiac Disease

Following a diet that is free of gluten is the only way for people who have been diagnosed with celiac disease to see a noticeable improvement in their symptoms and to prevent health problems in the future. People who have been diagnosed with celiac disease or suspect they might have a gluten intolerance — a closely related condition — should stock up on healthy foods that are also free of gluten. These include the following: 

  • Vegetables and fruits: Considered to be the foundation of any healthy diet, vegetables and fruits are also free of gluten in their natural states. In addition, they provide fiber, antioxidants and other essential nutrients that can improve immune function. 
  • Seeds and nuts: Look for flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, hemp seeds, sesame seeds, walnuts, sunflower seeds and chia seeds as they are good sources of omega-3 fats, minerals, fiber and other healthy fats. 
  • Gluten-free whole grains, beans, and legumes: Beans are naturally gluten-free though caution must be used if they are canned. Brown rice, quinoa, gluten-free oats, amaranth, wild rice and amaranth are also good choices. 
  • Healthy fats: Flaxseed, hemp, pumpkin, grapeseed, coconut and virgin olive oils add healthy fats to the diet. Additional sources include avocado, butter and ghee. 
  • Bone broth: some partitioners believe anecdotally that bone broth is healing to the gastrointestinal track due to presence of glucosamine and amino acids.   Also, bone broth is considered easy to digest.
  • Gluten-free flours: All chosen flours should be certified to be completely gluten-free in order to be safe. Some flours that can be eaten include cassava, chickpea flour, quinoa flour, brown rice flour, cornmeal, coconut flour, potato meal, and tapioca flour. 
  • Lean protein: Stick to grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish, pasture-raised poultry and eggs from cage-free environments to fuel the body with the omega-3 fats, protein and minerals it needs to fight inflammation and ward off malnutrition. 

What to Watch Out for at the Store

Gluten is the type of protein that find it’s way into several food sources if people aren’t paying close attention. Some foods that, although don’t naturally contain gluten, can be cross-contaminated with gluten depending on where it is packed.  It’s a good idea to stay away from processed foods, especially those that contain carbohydrates, such as pastas, pie crusts, snack bars and the like. Nearly all baking flours — white flour, self-rising flour and enriched flour are just a few examples — as well as any product that contains barley, rye, or wheat. Beer, malt alcohol, and processed fats should also be avoided. 

Because staying gluten-free can seem overwhelming and challenging.  Furthermore, the internet is full of bad and conflicting information.  Therefore, it’s important to follow-up with a medical professional who has experience with celiac disease and how to appropriately recommend an elimination food plan. In addition to monitoring your ongoing health, a health practitioner can offer dietary resources. 

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