Right now, more than 3 million Americans are living with celiac disease. This inherited, autoimmune disease is not always understood and diagnosis can be a challenge. May is Celiac Awareness Month—a perfect time to shine a light on this condition and boost the signal across social media.
Even if we don’t know what celiac disease is, we’ve all seen “gluten-free” on food packaging and menus. Although some people have opinions that gluten-free diets are a way to enhance performance or lose weight, in reality avoiding all gluten is an effective treatment plan for people with celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS).
As part of Celiac Awareness Month, Vivante Health’s research team compiled answers to some of the most common questions our Health Sherpas®and dietitians receive about celiac disease, NCGS and gluten-free diets.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which the body cannot digest gluten. About one in every 100 people have a celiac diagnosis, and it can affect people of all ages, even children. Though it’s not something you can catch, it is possible for genetics to increase your chances of having the disease. Researchers still don’t fully understand what causes celiac disease, but they have found that how you were fed as an infant, major GI infections and gut bacteria might contribute. Surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection and severe emotional stress may also trigger this autoimmune response to gluten.
What’s gluten and what symptoms can it cause for someone with celiac disease?
Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, the body sees it as a foreign invader and attacks, resulting in GI symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, bloating and gas. Non-GI symptoms like brain fog, headaches, fatigue, and skin rashes are also common. Over time, low iron levels, anemia, reduced bone density, and a breakdown of intestinal villi can occur.
What are villi?
The villi are tiny finger-like projections that line the small intestine. They help the body absorb fluids and nutrients. When they become damaged, it’s impossible for the body to absorb the vitamins and minerals it needs to function properly. The villi play a key role in celiac diagnosis. Celiac disease is confirmed after a positive blood test and a small biopsy that shows blunting of the villi.
What’s the difference between celiac disease and NCGS?
Some people have celiac-like symptoms after eating gluten but don’t test positive for celiac disease. If their symptoms improve after removing gluten from their diet, then these individuals are believed to have non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS). It’s estimated that around 18 million Americans have this condition.
How do we treat celiac disease?
Treatment is the same for both celiac disease and NCGS: a lifelong gluten-free diet. This means avoiding wheat, barley, rye, triticale, and wheat varieties like kamut, farro, durum, and semolina.
There are gluten-free grains that are safe to eat, such as rice, millet, quinoa, corn, and several others. And, of course, there are countless whole foods that are naturally gluten-free like fruits, vegetables, seeds, and meat.
If you have celiac disease or NCGS, it’s important to know that even gluten-free foods can pose a risk when they’re processed with other products. For example, oats are naturally gluten free, but in factories they often pass through machines used for processing other grains like wheat that do contain gluten. Another example: An apple is naturally gluten-free, but an apple breakfast cereal bar is probably not.
Here are a few quick tips to make sure your food is gluten free:
1. Check allergy statements on nutrition labels. You’re looking for food that’s clearly labeled “gluten free.”
2. Keep in mind that “wheat free” does not always mean gluten free.
3. Try to stick to only whole, unprocessed foods.
Vivante Health is dedicated to helping people with GI disorders like celiac disease manage symptoms and feel better from the inside out. That’s why members enrolled in our GIThrive program have access to a variety of gut health resources, including a user-friendly app and connections with the GIThrive Care Team of registered dietitians and Health Sherpas.
With GIThrive, you can get answers to your gluten-free questions, or advice to help adopt or stick to a gluten-free diet. Check it out for you and your employees today.
Special thanks to the GIThrive Research Team for contributing to this post.