Gluten is the main protein found in common grains, wheat, barley, rye and oats and their derivatives. It’s responsible for elasticity, crumb structure and moisture retention in doughy baked goods.
Without gluten, croissants wouldn’t be buttery and fluffy on the inside, fruitcake wouldn’t have that finger-licking moistness and biscuits wouldn’t crumble beside your cup of tea.
Source of Digestive Troubles
But gluten can also be the cause of a long list of problems in those who react to it. The most extreme form of gluten sensitivity is celiac disease, in which a person’s immune system reacts to minute amounts of gluten in the bloodstream. The result is inflammation of the intestinal tract and poor absorption of essential nutrients, leading to an array of further medical problems.
Those with less severe sensitivity don’t experience an immune reaction but can suffer an array of similar symptoms, ranging from mildly uncomfortable to severely debilitating. The common ones include abdominal bloating, weight loss, diarrhoea and fatigue as well as poor concentration, memory loss, nausea, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, and anaemia.
What causes the problem?
People with celiac disease suffer an autoimmune reaction that inflames the walls of the small intestine. This flattens the villi (fine, finger-like protrusions that take up nutrients) making it difficult for the small intestine to adequately absorb nutrients. The result is usually weight loss, diarrhoea and anaemia. Other symptoms include recurrent tiredness, headaches, joint pain and intestinal discomfort such as bloating, gas and constipation.
Detection methods have improved but celiac disease is still seriously under-diagnosed. About 80 percent of people with the condition don’t know they have it.
Until recently, doctors rarely considered gluten intolerance as a diagnosis. The Canadian Celiac Association is compiling stats but it’s been estimated by the Health Canada that one in every hundred Canada are affected by the disease.
Oddly, some people with the disease may show no outward symptoms whatsoever; internally, however, their bodies are robbed of essential nutrients.
If celiac disease goes undetected or untreated, sufferers are at greater risk of developing osteoporosis or various bowel cancers, and typically experience chronic ill health. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition has reported dental anomalies, short stature, osteopaenic bone disease, lactose intolerance, infertility and non-specific abdominal pain as other possible consequences.
Tests for Detection
Diagnosis for celiac disease usually begins with your GP ordering a blood test to screen for antibodies including antigliadin IgA, transglutaminase IgA and total IgA. “Practitioners often only do the first two, but total IgA is critical,” says Dr Carole Hungerford, a GP and author of Good Health in the 21st Century.
The next port of call is a specialist. Gastroenterologists typically perform a gastroscopy to take samples from the small intestine. A follow-up gastroscopy, 12 months later, will gauge the level of improvement after switching to a gluten-free diet.
Gluten-free Goes Mainstream
Fortunately, market forces have cottoned on to the number of gluten-intolerant consumers, and this is reflected in the availability and better quality of gluten-free foods in supermarkets nationally.
Check with your doctor or specialist before you start any gluten-free diets.
The Canadian Celiac Association has more information on the disease and can offer is services and support as well as help developing a gluten-free diet.