When walking down the aisles of higher quality grocery stores these days, you may now come across a number of tags promoting products as gluten-free. What does this mean? Is this like fat or carbs – should you be minimizing your consumption of gluten for some reason? Well no, not unnecessarily, unless you specifically have a condition that makes you sensitive to it.
So What Is Gluten?
While people often refer to gluten as a protein, it actually represents a component of proteins called peptides. These peptides are different in the different grains considered to contain gluten and which must be avoided in gluten-free diets. In rye, the protein is called secalin; in barley, it is called hordein; and in wheat it is called gliadin.
People with a specific sensitivity to these peptides must strictly avoid them or face potentially very serious consequences. This sensitivity is often diagnosed as celiac disease (CD) or celiac sprue disease, although some people who test negatively for celiac disease may still suffer from some degree of gluten sensitivity.
It is important to recognize that the gluten-free phenomenon is not a diet fad or marketing ploy. It is a necessary diet for people with a specific medical condition.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac sprue disease is an autoimmune disorder where the immune system produces too much of a specific antibody when it detects gluten in the body. These antibodies attack the walls of the intestine, slowly killing the hair-like villi that lines the intestinal wall and helps absorb nutrients from the foods we eat and digest. As the villi are worn down, your body is less and less able to obtain those vital nutrients from your food and you become malnourished over time.
People with celiac disease also usually have an unusually permeable intestinal wall, meaning that undigested gluten and other nutrients may pass through your intestinal wall into your blood without being properly digested.
The only real treatment for celiac sprue disease is a strict gluten-free diet for life.
What Causes Celiac Disease?
So why would someone have such an immune response? Why would the body attack itself like that? To be completely honest, we do not fully understand why just yet. Howevever, current evidence indicates that exposure to these proteins and a genetic predisposition must be present before celiac disease will occur. Additionally, some people believe some sufferers also require some kind of trigger, such as stress or another medical condition which makes the body more susceptible to the autoimmune response.
Another theory is that the presence of certain bacteria in the intestines, or lack thereof, may trigger celiac disease in those predisposed to it. The changing profile of gut bacteria over the course of one's lifetime may explain the delayed onset of celiac disease in some people but not others.
How Does One Treat Celiac Disease?
As I hinted earlier, the only real treatment for celiac disease is a gluten-free diet for life. You must begin here and any other treatment must only be supplemental to a strict gluten elimination diet.
However, because of the theory that a permeable intestinal wall and a problem with gut bacteria may be related to celiac disease, it would be good idea to help your intestine as best as you can. Specifically, I suggest a quality enteric-coated probiotic supplement. The enteric coating helps the probiotics reach your intestine instead of just being digested and absorbed earlier in the digestive process.