Nowadays, it is quite common to see food labels that indicate “no salt” or “low in fat”. But recently, a new statement seems more and more popular: “gluten free”. These two seemingly innocuous words can make a world of difference to people who suffer from celiac disease.
What is celiac disease?
“Celiac disease”, if you are not familiar with the term, is often called “gluten intolerance” or “gluten allergy”.
Following a gluten-free diet is a daily battle. You need only walk the aisles of a grocery store to realize that gluten is everywhere. Sometimes it is very obvious, like in a loaf of bread or a box of pastries; other times, it is well hidden in a spice mix. Avoiding this enemy at all cost is the challenge that faces individuals who have celiac disease.
Gluten in itself is neither toxic nor harmful to your health. Celiac disease is due to the immune system’s inadequate reaction to the presence of gluten. This provokes an inflammation of the intestinal wall, and since the wall is damaged, it can no longer do its job properly. This causes various problems, including the malabsorption of nutrients that are essential to good health.
Celiac disease affects approximately 1% of Canadians, both children and adults. The onset of symptoms of the disease is said to be determined by a certain genetic predisposition associated with a trigger (stress, infection, surgery, pregnancy, etc.). People who suffer from diabetes, thyroid disease or trisomy, for example, are at higher risk.
Is it intolerance or an allergy?
The definition of celiac disease is still subject to debate: is it food intolerance or an allergy? Because of the immune system’s role, some say it is an allergy, especially since sufferers must avoid all contact with gluten. However, the typical manifestations of a food allergy, such as breathing difficulties, anaphylaxis, skin rash and hives, usually do not appear. Others think that it is food intolerance because the symptoms mostly affect the digestive system. In truth, it would be correct to say that celiac disease is an auto-immune disease resulting from the ingestion of gluten.
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
The symptoms of celiac disease can vary greatly from one person to another, and many of them are often associated with other disorders. This can make diagnosing the condition quite difficult.
Here are some of the most frequent symptoms:
- intestinal problems: bloating, gas, diarrhea, constipation, etc.;
- abdominal pain;
- weight fluctuation;
- fatigue or weakness;
- irritability, depression;
- muscle cramps;
- vitamin A, D, E or K deficiency;
- bone pain;
- mouth ulcers;
- menstrual irregularities;
If you suffer from unusual symptoms, see your doctor as soon as possible to obtain a proper diagnosis; if he or she suspects celiac disease, you will be required to provide a blood sample for an analysis to detect the presence of antibodies. If the results are positive, an intestinal biopsy will be recommended. Do not start a gluten-free diet before this analysis; doing so could alter your results.
How do you treat celiac disease?
The basis of treatment for celiac disease is avoiding all intake of gluten throughout one’s life. You can expect symptoms to disappear about six to 12 months after starting your new diet. Gluten is a protein that is mostly found in wheat, barley, rye and oats. Several other foods can also contain gluten. Here are some examples:
- bread crumbs;
- cold cuts;
- liver pâté;
- soy sauce;
- sour cream, yogurt, ice cream;
- peanut butter;
- icing sugar;
- canned soup.
This list is not exhaustive; indeed, there are countless foods that contain gluten. Those who suffer from celiac disease must also watch out for cross-contamination, which can be just as harmful. For example, they should not toast their gluten-free bread in the toaster used by the rest of the family. It is important to know that even slight lapses in your diet can lead to major long-term complications.
Following a gluten-free diet requires a radical change in one’s lifestyle. Those who follow it seriously and thoroughly feel the benefits rapidly and see improvements in their health.
In the past few years, grocery stores have started offering more and more gluten-free products. Because these products are more expensive, you can get a tax credit for medical expenses.
Tips for living with celiac disease
If you suffer from celiac disease, follow these tips, as well as those given by your health professionals:
- See a nutrition specialist (nutritionist) to map out your diet.
- Get as much information as possible on the disease.
- Take notes or save the information you find online.
- Keep a journal where you can list the foods you eat and your symptoms.
- Join a support or discussion group.
- Prepare gluten-free meals in advance and freeze them.
- When you eat out, tell waiters, caterers or hosts about your health issues so that they can offer you a gluten-free meal.
- Share your recipes or hand a list of forbidden ingredients to people who make food for you or who invite you often.
- If you take medication, prescribed or sold over the counter, or a natural health product, ask your pharmacist if it contains gluten. In many cases, he or she will have to contact the manufacturer’s information line to confirm the absence of gluten.
- Be organized and thorough; this will be your key to success.
If you fill up on knowledge and savoir-faire, and rely on the cooperation of allies, such as health professionals, it will be possible for you to prevent the enemy from reaching you. The results are worth it: living in better health for many years to come!