Gluten Sensitivity vs. Celiac. What You Need to Know About Gluten

Gluten Sensitivity

#5 – Gluten Sensitivity vs. Celiac Disease.  What You Need to Know About Gluten

Gluten Free / Live Healthy

Welcome back Cool Healthy Lifers. During our last post we walked through my five-pound bagel experience and how oddly my body reacts to bagels. One reason for that could have to do with gluten. Gluten is quickly becoming a complicated topic in our lives and gluten-free diets have become all the rage. So what is gluten and why do we care?

Gluten 101

Any where we look these days we are seeing and (maybe even) smelling “gluten free” food products.  Most mainstream restaurants now offer gluten free alternatives or in some instances complete gluten free menus.  Grocery stores are dedicating entire aisles to “gluten free” foods and there are some companies completely focused on “being gluten free.”  But the question more and more people are asking is: “should I go gluten free?”  While I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist, I wanted to share what we’ve learned about gluten and a simple process to test how your body “feels” when you remove gluten from your diet.

Gluten is a protein that acts as a glue to help hold food together. It’s found in many different types of grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye, and it generally “shows up” in bread, pasta, cereal, beer, and processed foods. Said differently, gluten is what gives bagels, cakes, and cookies, for example, their chewy, gooey goodness. But gluten is also found in some less obvious places, such as salad dressing, soy sauce, and certain medications and supplements. The Celiac Disease Foundation has an extensive list of products containing gluten and identifies some non-typical places where gluten is found.

The problem with gluten is twofold.  First and foremost, some people have an outright allergic reaction to gluten.  For these individuals the digestion of gluten creates a tremendous amount of inflammation in the body.  To combat the inflammation, the body produces an immune response (treats it like an invading enemy) and begins to attack healthy cells.  This autoimmune response is known as celiac disease. However, there is also a much larger, faster growing issue with our gooey friend gluten – our body’s ability (or lack thereof) to properly digest the protein. This is called gluten sensitivity, which is a term that refers to anyone who seems to have negative reactions somewhere in their body to the digestion of gluten.  Let’s take a closer look at the two conditions below.

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a very specific autoimmune disease where someone’s immune system views gluten as an enemy invader and triggers an immune response causing his or her body to actually attack the small intestine.  This can lead to tremendous damage and discomfort to one’s gastrointestinal system and can lead to more serious, longer-term healthy problems.  Based on research from The Celiac Disease Foundation, celiac disease impacts 1 in 100 people worldwide and approximately 2.5 million Americans currently have celiac disease and don’t actually know it.  Left untreated, celiac disease can precipitate long-term neurological conditions, GI tract conditions, osteoporosis, and certain types of cancer.

Gluten Sensitivity

Unlike celiac disease, gluten sensitivity is a less specific but very real condition that is far reaching across all aspects of our health.  While individuals who have a sensitivity to gluten will not test positive for a “gluten allergy,” they do experience a series of symptoms (foggy mind, bloating, headaches, fatigue) that seem to go away once gluten is removed from their diet.  It’s estimated by Alessio Fasano, who is a world-renown expert on gluten sensitivity and celiac disease, that gluten sensitivity impacts six to seven times as many people as celiac disease. This equates to about 20 million people in the United States!

What Should I Do About Gluten?

So now that we have a bit more knowledge about gluten, what should we do about it?  Celiac Disease is a very serious condition and while the percent of Americans that have celiac is very low, if you present some of the typical systems you should definitely consult your primary care physician and get tested.  For the rest of us, I recommend doing some basic, self-experiments to determine how gluten impacts your day-to-day.  You may be very surprised by the outcome!

How to Test for Gluten Sensitivity

There are many different ways / plans to test for gluten sensitivity, but the simplest is to just cut it out of your diet for a few weeks and see how you feel.  Below is a six step plan to test what your body feels like when you ditch the gluten.  I would love to hear how it goes.  Please leave a comment and let me know!

1.  Plan to commit AT LEAST two weeks to being free of gluten.

Let me be very transparent: those most negatively affected by gluten may need to spend several months free from gluten to realize all the benefits. I recognize that six or more months without gluten is a long time. Since many of you may notice changes and feel the benefits within a few weeks, I’d suggest trialing a gluten-free diet for two to three weeks.

2.  Before taking the plunge do some basic research on alternatives to gluten.

The biggest reason people don’t go gluten free is because they are not aware of all the great food alternatives that are at their fingertips!  They think giving up gluten is giving up everything but fruits and veggies.  But there is an entire universe of food to eat on a gluten free diet:
  • Pasta = Rice, Quinoa
  • Bread = Rudi’s brand, Food for Life brand, Whole Foods (most gluten free bread is found in the frozen food aisle)
  • Flour = Rice, Oat, Buckwheat (there are a whole bunch of gluten free flours these days)
  • Beer and Wine = Omission (I’ve tried them all and Omission is the only one that tastes normal!  It’s actually made with normal barley and hops, but the gluten is removed prior to distribution).  Wine = drink away, no gluten here!!
  • Pizza = While most  fast food chains haven’t introduced gluten free crust just yet, more and more places offer a decent gluten free crust alternative.  We live in Charlotte and have found several local/regional places that have great gluten free crusts!
  • Bakeries = Believe it or not there are more and more bakeries that specialize or offer gluten free goods.  Great Harvest is one local place we frequent.
  • Amazon has a large selection of gluten free products to build your shopping list

3.  Check your calendar

Its best to go gluten free when you have a bit of a “lul” in your calendar.  Try to find at least a two-week period on your calendar where you won’t be traveling across the country, going on vacation, etc… Now don’t get me wrong, you don’t need to stay at home for two weeks and eat only fruits and vegetables.  You just want to ensure you have a bit more flexibility with your calendar/diet as you get started.  Don’t be afraid to eat out, as more and more restaurants have really good gluten free options!!

4.  Take the plunge!

This is the easiest step…just stop eating gluten!!  Go for it.  Once you actually get started, it will quickly become second nature and you may really start to feel the benefits after a few weeks.

5. Monitor your progress

Grab a journal, blank piece of paper or favorite online notes program (I love Evernote which is a really cool free tool) and spend 2-3 minutes at the end of each day writing about how you feel.  This is an important step, as we normally breeze through life so quickly that we don’t actually stop to “check in” with our bodies to see how we’re feeling.  I wouldn’t expect much in the first few days, but as you get close to a week do you begin to notice any differences in overall well-being?  Energy level?  Digestive patterns? Bloating?  Brain fogginess?  Hair?  Aches/Pains?

6.  Reintroduce gluten

After you’ve completed your two-to-three week mini cleanse, you may want to  reintroduce gluten into your diet.  Some people feel so awesome being gluten free that they don’t dare go back to the evil gluten. For others, I suggest introducing some bread or pasta back into your diet and being super sensitive to how it makes you feel.  For folks who tend to have a gluten sensitivity, you’ll quickly notice that you start to feel worse as you introduce gluten back into your diet.

The Results

So how did it go?  Did you notice any changes when removing gluten from you diet?  Did you have any reaction when you re-introduced gluten?  If you didn’t notice any changes, then there is a good chance that you have no sensitivity (or very mild sensitivity) to gluten.  That’s great.  If you did notice changes either when you went gluten free or when you re-introduced gluten to your diet, than you’re probably somewhere on the gluten sensitivity spectrum.  This doesn’t mean you have Celiac disease, but that your body is sensitive to digesting gluten.
If you believe you have a gluten sensitivity, don’t feel overwhelmed by the idea.  I find myself being very sensitive to gluten.  My wife Brittany went gluten free about six months ago and has noticed a profound change in her general well-being.  I don’t believe either of us have celiac disease, but we definitely feel better when we’re steering clear of gluten.  But this doesn’t mean we’re relegated to eating just twigs and berries!  We’re at a place where we enjoy rice and quinoa pasta better than flour / whole wheat pasta.  We’ve found several local pizza places that have a killer gluten free crust, and our favorite Italian restaurant has a whole separate gluten free menu!  We also find ourselves branching out to try a wider variety of foods, since when we cook and bake we stay away from recipes that include flour.
The moral of the story is to educate yourself about gluten.  It’s important to understand what it is (and more importantly what it isn’t).  Learn the importance of testing the impact of gluten on your body and becoming aware of the potential benefits a gluten free lifestyle may have on your well being.  Go a few weeks without the gluten and no telling how you may feel!!
Have you ever tested your sensitivity to gluten?  If so I’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments section!!
Until next time.
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We’re starting something new in the blog.  After each post we identify an interesting ‘healthy living’ video that we found particularly insightful.  Consider this our version of a healthy living YouTube channel!

Gluten – What You Don’t Know Might Kill You

In this video Dr. Mark Hyman provides some additional perspective on some of the negative consequences of having gluten in our diets.  Please let me know what you think!

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