by Dr. Tricia Pingel, NMD
You may have noticed an upswing in the availability of gluten free products. Whether its in the grocery store or at a restaurant, the options of maintaining a gluten free diet has increased compared to just a few years ago.
So, what is gluten and why do people need to live gluten free?
Gluten is a common name for the proteins found in all forms of wheat and grains such as rye and barley. It is the glue that holds many food products together, giving bread its spongy texture. People suffering from an autoimmune condition known as celiac disease experience an adverse reaction to gluten. Celiac disease is a chronic intestinal malabsorption caused from a toxic reaction to gluten. Living a gluten free life is not a choice for a person diagnosed with celiac disease, its a life-long commitment.
Causes of Celiac Disease:
Celiac disease can appear at any time in a persons life. According to Celiac.org one in every 133 people in the United States is afflicted with this condition. Its often inherited and passed down from parent to child through the HLA DQ2 and DQ8 genes. Not every person who inherits these genes will develop celiac disease, but every patient who develops celiac will usually test positive for them. Celiac disease is not a food allergy, it is an autoimmune condition. People who suffer from wheat allergy may eventually grow out of it while celiac is a life-long condition.
Another possible cause is an overabundance of gluten in the modern diet. Gluten is found in a great many processed products, and often when we eat something in excess, our bodies become intolerant over time. Although it may not be labeled as classic Celiac Disease, many Americans are now developing intolerance to gluten. This intolerance presents a variety of symptoms, such as fatigue, rashes, joint pain, abdominal complaints and headache. When celiac screening comes back negative, gluten may be dismissed as a source of the problem, but it is actually a strong contributor.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
One of the first signs of celiac disease is a change in bowel movements. Stool may become greasy, fatty, loose and frothy with a very bad odor. This change in bowel movements may be accompanied with abdominal cramping, gas and bloating.
Other symptoms may include:
Unexplained weight loss or gain
Skin changes such as rash or hives
Anciety and Depression
Mouth/skin ulcers and rashes
Bone or joint pain
Vitamin and mineral deficiency
Diagnosing Celiac Disease
In traditional medicine, celiac is diagnosed by taking a biopsy of the intestine, but this procedure is very invasive. Blood screening is a less invasive but extremely effective method I use to diagnose celiac. Multiple blood markers that include anti-tissue transglutaminase, anti-deaminated gliadin and anti-endomysial antibodies are often a good indication that celiac disease is present, but these are not fool proof. If some blood markers are higher than others, it may be an indication that gluten malabsorption caused from intolerance is the culprit and not celiac. I examine all blood markers closely before making a positive celiac diagnosis. Genetic screening that looks for the presence of HLA DQ2 and DQ8 genes is also a less invasive method to diagnose this disease.
Treating Celiac Disease:
The most effective treatment for celiac is to eliminate gluten and gliatin (a protein found in wheat) completely from the diet. This is a life-long commitment that includes not only eating a gluten free diet, but also ensuring all beauty products are gluten free. Patients that refrain from eating gluten may still experience symptoms if gluten is present in their shampoo, toothpaste, lotion or any other product that applies to the skin.
I have found that once gluten and gliatin are eliminated, 30 percent of patients begin to have relief from symptoms in three days, and 90 percent within three months. For those with gluten intolerance rather than actual celiac disease, this process can take longer as the intestinal lining needs to heal. The good news is that once the lining is healed, the patient will not have to be as concerned about small amounts of gluten in his or her diet.
Living gluten-free improves symptoms, but the intestines have been damaged and inflamed and will need time to heal for proper nutritional absorption. When the intestines are inflamed they are unable to properly absorb the nutrients and vitamins that are essential for healing. The best way to combat nutritional deficiencies from lack of intestinal absorption is through IV Vitamin Therapy. This therapy is so effective because it injects vitamins and minerals directly into the vein, therefore bypassing the intestines for optimal absorption.
Some common herbs that can be used to sooth inflammation are de-glycerrized licorice, slippery elm, marshmallow root and glutamine. Administering pancreatic enzymes that break down foods will also help with the digestion process.
What happens if Celiac goes untreated?
If left untreated, the body will be unable to absorb essential vitamins and nutrients and will slowly be poisoned. This may lead to:
Insulin dependent diabetes
Psychiatric disturbances including schizophrenia
Depression and anxiety
Dermatitis herpetiformis (itchy rash)
Increased risk of Hodgkins Disease, lymphoma (the body doesnt have the nutrients it needs to fight off cancer)
Gall bladder malfunction
Celiac/ Cows milk Associations
Lactose intolerance is a possible a side effect of celiac disease. Studies have found that many people who cannot tolerate gluten also cannot tolerate cows milk and have a much higher incidence of celiac disease (according to a report found on celiac.org).
A celiac patient who eats gluten sustains significant damage to the small intestines. This damage makes it nearly impossible to break down lactose, which may continue for years even after a celiac patient becomes gluten free. For this reason, a patient who is diagnosed with celiac disease should also eliminate dairy products from the diet until the intestines have had time to heal.
How can you live a Gluten Free life?
A celiac patient needs to be aware that they will never be able to consume gluten products again and a complete lifestyle change is needed if they want to live symptom free. Luckily, with growing awareness of celiac disease and gluten intolerance, those who suffer have many options. In health food stores and in many grocery stores, gluten free products are available for purchase. There are also restaurants that offer gluten free menus. Check with your favorite restaurant to see if they provide the option of a gluten free meal.
For people suffering from symptoms similar to those of celiac or gluten intolerance it is wise to seek the health care advise of a naturopathic physician before self-diagnosing or administering herbal remedies.
About Dr. Pingel:
Dr. Tricia Pingel is a naturopathic medical doctor located in Scottsdale, Arizona. She treats a variety of conditions, including menopausal symptoms with bio-identical hormone replacement, infertility, cardiac, thyroid disorders, anxiety/depression, gastrointestinal concerns, such as, gas/bloating, food allergies, celiac disease, IBD and more!