(KRON) – One in 133 Americans across all races, genders, and ages suffer from celiac disease, and 83% of them don’t know it.
Despite these statistics, there’s been a gluten-free explosion. By 2019, gluten-free product sales had grown from $580 million in 2004 to $4.3 billion, and it’s estimated to reach $7.5 billion by 2027. To break this down for us, our health expert, Karen Owoc, is here to explain the disease, the trend, and who’s at risk.
What is Gluten?
• Gluten is a general name for the proteins in wheat (e.g., wheat berries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farro, graham Kamut®, einkorn), barley, and rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye).
• Gluten gives foods their “stretchability” (think tossing pizza dough) and helps foods, like breads, cakes, and pastas hold their shape (acts like a glue). So when you bake with gluten-free flours, you have to make some ingredient adjustments to help keep your product from falling apart and crumbling.
What is Celiac Disease?
• Celiac disease is a condition in which the immune system is abnormally sensitive to gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye, barley)
• It is a serious autoimmune disorder. Eating food containing gluten causes the body to produce an immune response that attacks the small intestines and other tissues and organs.
Note: People that have a gluten intolerance or sensitivity don’t have an auto-immune response to gluten, but may have symptoms. All people had to do was give up wheat and claim they felt better and diagnosed themselves as gluten-intolerant.
• The Lining of a Healthy Intestine: A healthy intestine has small finger-like structures called “villi” (pronounced VIL-liyh) inside the small intestine. The villi trap food, so the nutrients can be absorbed into your body.
• Celiac diseased intestine: Immune response attacks on the small intestine cause “villous atrophy”, where the villi are ‘flattened’ and damaged by celiac disease, which makes it impossible to absorb nutrients, resulting in malnourishment.
• If a gluten-free diet isn’t strictly followed, the immune system becomes overactive causing chronic systemic inflammation, which leads to chronic disease.
Areas Affected By Celiac Disease
• When celiac disease goes undiagnosed or is misdiagnosed, it can have serious health consequences. The average time a person waits to be correctly diagnosed in the U.S. is 6-10 years.
• There are over 300 known symptoms associated with celiac disease, which makes an accurate diagnosis difficult and often delayed.
• BRAIN: Headache, dizziness, migraines, depression
• MOUTH: Ulcer and tooth enamel erosion
• JOINTS / MUSCLES: Pain, swelling, chronic fatigue
• BONES: Osteoporosis
• STOMACH: Pain and nausea
• INTESTINAL: Diarrhea, bloating, constipation
• SKIN: Brittle nails, acne or eczema
• FEMALE ORGANS: Infertility (1 in 6 women with infertility have undiagnosed celiac disease)
How Celiac Disease Is Diagnosed
• Endoscopy with duodenal biopsy showing villous atrophy (the gold standard).
• Antibody screening (tTG-IgA Test) — a simple blood test.
• Sometimes a genetic test and/or small intestinal biopsy are performed for confirmation.
• Celiac disease in older adults is often misdiagnosed as some type of gastrointestinal distress, which is common in the elderly.
A Sick Gut (Intestine) Has Serious Consequences
• 70% of the body’s immune system is in your digestive tract.
• Your gut wall houses 70% of the cells that make up your immune system.
• A healthy gut promotes a healthy immune system.
Who’s At Risk
• Tends to run in families.
• Can strike at any age. You can eat gluten for most of your life and never get sick, but all of a sudden, you can’t digest gluten.
• Today, the majority of celiac patients that have the gene have “latent disease” (they have the gene, but do not show symptoms yet).
• In people who are genetically prone to celiac, a change in the composition of the gut bacteria could trigger the autoimmune response. This could be the cause of the celiac epidemic.
• Surgery, antibiotics, an infection, or stress (e.g., death of a close family member, friend, or spouse) can change the bacterial composition.
• Currently, removing gluten from the diet is the only treatment for celiac disease.
• Health trends, e.g., weight management and “clean” eating (less processed foods), have led to the gluten-free trend.
• Gluten-free for weight loss became a trendy weight loss diet when Lady Gaga announced she was maintaining a strict gluten-free diet to shed 10 pounds.
• There is NO scientific evidence that going gluten-free causes weight loss.
The Downside of a Gluten-Free Diet
Eliminating gluten is not recommended unless you have celiac disease.
• B vitamin intake is lower.
• Levels of arsenic in the blood are higher in those following a gluten-free diet, due to the high intake of rice (rice flour).
The Takeaway: If you have any of the signs and symptoms of celiac disease, it’s imperative to see a doctor immediately