As gluten-free diets continue to rise in popularity, so have questions about the protein found in bread, pasta, and beer. While some voluntarily opt to give up gluten, others must completely avoid it because they have celiac disease, which is marked by an inability to digest gluten, causing painful and even debilitating symptoms. The good news is that celiac disease is relatively simple to diagnose and can be managed by following a strict gluten-free diet. The not-so-great news is that celiac disease is often an inherited condition, and there still isn’t a cure available (though research is underway). If you think you might have celiac disease, or a greater risk for developing it, here’s what you need to know.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects about one percent of the population. When those affected eat gluten (a protein that is present in wheat, barley, and rye), their bodies launch an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks can cause severe discomfort and unwanted side effects as well as damage the lining of the intestinal tract, making it difficult for the body to properly absorb nutrients.
What are the symptoms of Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease symptoms can vary, which may be due to a variety of factors, including how long you were breastfed as an infant or how old you were when you began consuming gluten. Here are some of the symptoms you may experience if you suffer from celiac disease:
- Bloating and abdominal pain
- Gas, diarrhea, constipation, and pale stools
- Depression or anxiety
- Muscle cramps
- Joint and bone pain
- Weight loss
- Tingling feeling in the legs
- Dermatitis herpetiformis, a severe skin rash
- Sores in the mouth such as canker sores
- Missed menstrual periods
- Infertility or repeated miscarriage
- Inhibited growth (in children)
Gluten Intolerance vs. Celiac Disease
Celiac disease can sometimes get confused with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). NCGS affects roughly six percent of the population and cause nearly identical symptoms to celiac disease, making it difficult to decipher the difference between the two. However, unlike celiac disease, NCGS does not cause damage to the intestine.
What Causes Celiac Disease?
According to research, celiac disease affects individuals who have particular genes variants that are carried by about one third of the population (variants of the HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1 genes). These genes provide instructions for making proteins that are critical to the immune system. However, variants of these genes can trigger an inappropriate immune response to a segment of the gluten protein known as gliadin. Almost all individuals who are diagnosed with celiac disease have variants of the HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1 genes.
How to Test for Celiac Disease
Celiac disease can be diagnosed using a simple blood test. The test screens for a higher number of antibodies in your blood, which are produced by your immune system in response to the presence of gluten (which is viewed by your immune system as a threat). In order for celiac disease screening to be accurate, however, you must initially be on a diet that contains gluten to trigger the production of antibodies. Celiac disease screening is recommended for children over the age of 3 and adults experiencing possible celiac symptoms along with parents, siblings, and children of celiac disease sufferers.
Is Celiac Disease Genetic?
Yes, celiac disease is often hereditary. Those with a first degree relative (a parent, sibling, or child) with celiac disease has a 1 in 10 risk of developing the disease.
How to Treat Celiac Disease
While a celiac vaccine is in the works, there is currently no cure for celiac disease. For now, the best course of treatment is to stick to a strict gluten-free diet and avoid foods with wheat, rye, and barley.
Celiac Disease Food List
Along with produce, meat, and most dairy, here’s a short list of pantry gluten-free must-haves. Find even more here.
Gluten-Free Grains and Starches
- Almond flour
- Cassava flour
- Tapioca Flour
Gluten-Free Nuts and Seeds
- Brazil nuts
- Chia seeds
- Hemp seeds
- Black beans
- Garbanzo beans/chickpeas
- Kidney beans
Gluten-Free Cooking Oils
- Avocado oil
- Canola oil
- Coconut oil
Gluten-Free Condiments & Sauces
- Tomato sauce (check labels)
- Ketchup (check labels)
- Coconut aminos
- Maple syrup