Let’s get this cleared up first, what exactly is gluten?
Gluten is wheat. More specifically, a protein found in wheat. Therefore it can be found in places like rye, barley, oats, and most any grain-like/bread substance. That being said it’s probably not a surprise to you that gluten can be found in cakes, cookies, crackers, pancakes, muffins, and things of that nature; more obvious places. However; gluten is also found in some less likely places such as candy (licorice, for example), beer, some dark liquors, medicines, lip balm, certain processed foods (cereal, canned items), and so on. It can be a challenge grocery shopping and eating out when you are gluten intolerant.
So what does being gluten intolerant mean?
Being gluten intolerant occurs when your body cannot digest gluten.
“Gluten” comes from the Latin word for glue – which makes sense, seeing as its adhesive properties hold things like cake and bread together. But those same properties interfere with the breakdown and absorption of nutrients. The result is a glued-together constipating lump in your gut.
This undigested gluten then triggers the immune system to attack the lining of your small intestine, which can cause symptoms like diarrhea, constipation, nausea, and abdominal pain.
Celiacs disease is gluten intolerance in its most intense & serious form. The small intestines of those with this disease are quite hypersensitive to gluten. People suffering from Celiacs really need to watch what they eat – because ingesting even a small bit of gluten can cause a dire reaction for them.
When they ingest gluten, their immune system responds by attacking and destroying villi (tiny hairs lining your small intestine). These villi are what absorb the nutrients into your bloodstream. Without healthy villi, a person becomes malnourished – no matter how much food they eat.
Celiacs disease is therefore a combination of malabsorption and an abnormal immune reaction to gluten. This disease is also genetic. Sometimes it’s triggered too; after things like surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection, or severe emotional stress.
Did you know that according to the University of Chicago Celiacs Disease Center, an average of one out of every 133 otherwise healthy people in the U.S. suffer from this digestive disease?
So although gluten sensitivity and Celiacs disease are two distinct “clinical” entities, they have same environmental trigger (gluten) and many of the same symptoms:
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Testing for gluten intolerance/sensitivity is tough because there is no real standard yet.
However, there are some tests that measure the presence of anti-gliadin IgA (an antibody) in the blood of the stool (a.k.a., your poo). Antibodies in the blood mean that gliadin made it through the intestinal lining into the blood, where the body put up a defense against it. Antibodies in the stool indicate the presence of antibodies in the gut, where the body has begun defending itself. Since gut antibodies come before blood antibodies – fecal antibody tests are regarded as more accurate for testing gluten sensitivity because the blood antibodies only show up AFTER significant intestinal damage has allowed gliadin to pass through. At that point, some damage has already been done.
My best friend didn’t find out until her sophomore year of college that she’d been gluten intolerant for years. She knew it had been years because she’d always suffered from stomach pain and consistent gas her whole life – she just thought it was normal. Until one day her mom insisted she get her stool tested. So she sent in the mail (after having frozen it) to a specialized hospital to get it tested. Sure enough, she had gluten intolerance. She began her gluten-free diet right away – and in just two weeks began noticing huge improvements in her digestion, how she felt, her moods; and she also lost 15 pounds after 2 months. Crazy, right!?
If you suspect you have intolerance to gluten – my advice would be to cut it out of your diet for at least 2-4 weeks. If you notice positive improvements in your digestion, physical comfort, and overall health; I’d abandon it for good. You really are not missing out anything nutritionally by avoiding gluten – besides maybe some potentially unwanted health issues down the line. And with gluten sensitivity on the rise, gluten free food options are growing widely in their availability! Score.
So – are you gluten sensitive or think you might be? Share your comments and/or stories with us by commenting below!