There are many reasons why different people choose to switch to a gluten-free diet. Some people find out they have a genetic sensitivity or intolerance to gluten. Others simply feel better and healthier off gluten. Some people, however, are Celiac and cannot consume gluten under any circumstances.
If you’ve recently undergone a Celiac blood test, chances are the results left you with a mixed bag of emotions.
On the one hand, if the test was positive, you might feel relieved. You have your answer; finally, the years of stomach pain and intestinal distress make sense, but you’re looking at the monumental task of overhauling all your eating habits. You may be wondering if you can still go out and eat at the same places you enjoy, or worrying about whether or not you can afford to add all of those special gluten-free products to your grocery bill.
On the other hand, if the test was negative, perhaps you feel exasperated, wondering what else it could be if not Celiac disease.
Unfortunately, gluten may still be the culprit, as you may have a genetic gluten sensitivity.
Gluten-Free Diets Can Improve Quality of Life
Gluten has gotten a bad rap over the years, and it’s not hard to understand why. Celiac disease, an allergic response to gluten that causes the immune system to attack the small intestine. It is one of the most common ailments of the digestive system, and it’s being diagnosed more frequently every year. There is no cure, but following a gluten-free diet eliminates symptoms and can promote intestinal healing.
However, a negative Celiac blood test doesn’t mean that your issues aren’t being caused by gluten. More and more people who haven’t been diagnosed with Celiac disease are choosing to eliminate gluten from their diets in the name of health.
Many people who are not Celiac but seem to be sensitive to gluten are reporting feeling healthier when they eliminate gluten from their diet. Gluten-free diets have become trendy among people suffering from IBS, type 1 diabetes, gluten ataxia, as well as people trying to lose weight and those suffering from HIV-related enteropathy.
Gluten Intolerance vs. Sensitivity vs. Allergy
You can have adverse reactions to gluten with or without having Celiac disease. There is a large (and growing) portion of the population who experience symptoms of sensitivity or intolerance to gluten, but don’t have an allergy.
A sensitivity or intolerance causes milder reactions that are typically limited to digestive issues; you may experience some discomfort after eating, but these symptoms tend to pass after a few hours. Foods that trigger a sensitivity reaction can usually still be eaten in moderation. You can read more about food intolerances here.
An allergy, on the other hand, can cause reactions throughout the body. The severity of symptoms can range from debilitatingly painful to life-threatening.
Food sensitivity may go away in time, but an allergy will stick around for life and may even get worse.
Signs and Symptoms Indicating You Should Go Gluten-Free
A gluten allergy or intolerance can cause debilitating symptoms in some and barely noticeable reactions in others. Bloating, gas, diarrhoea or constipation, abdominal pain, nausea and vomiting can all point to gluten intolerance or allergy.
Some allergic reactions, however, can be much worse and include a rash, mouth ulcers, joint pain, headaches, tingling in the hands or feet, as well as anaemia and, if left undiagnosed, eventual osteomalacia or osteoporosis.
Unexplained weight or hair loss and low levels of energy can affect people with Celiac disease because damage to the small intestine can interfere with its ability to absorb nutrients.
People with gluten sensitivity or gluten intolerance can experience many of the same symptoms, to any degree, although the long-term side effects seem to be less severe than those with Celiac disease.
What Sets Celiac Disease Apart from NCGS (Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity)?
Celiac disease is classified as an autoimmune disorder. Symptoms can begin at any point in a person’s life, and a blood test is needed to confirm a diagnosis.
Essentially, it is caused by an allergic reaction to gluten, a protein that is naturally found in wheat, barley and rye.
When someone with Celiac disease consumes gluten, their body’s immune system attacks their small intestine, damaging the villi over time.
Villi are tiny, finger-like protrusions that line the inner wall of the small intestine and are responsible for absorbing nutrients. Eventually, repeated immune attacks cause the villi to become damaged and shortened, inhibiting their ability to absorb nutrients.
In the long run, nutrient deficiencies can lead to anaemia, hair loss, low levels of energy, loss of bone density, or nerve damage. In children suffering from Celiac, repeated consumption of gluten can cause delayed puberty, cognitive deficits and poor physical growth.
There is no cure for Celiac disease, other than strict life-long adherence to a diet free of gluten.
Benefits of the Gluten-Free Diet
There are many benefits of a gluten-free lifestyle in general. Aside from the obvious payoff of not having to deal with the gastrointestinal symptoms of gluten sensitivity, reducing or eliminating your intake of gluten may come with some surprising added benefits, including:
- Healthier body weight
- Increased energy
- Reduced brain fog
- Healthier bones
- Clearer skin
- Reduced bloating
- Elimination or reduction of other allergic reactions, such as lactose intolerance or eczema
- Reduced anxiety, depression, or other mood disorders
- Healthier hair
Interestingly, a recent study conducted in the UK suggested a possible link between Celiac disease and neurological problems such as poor mental health, damage to brain tissue and impaired cognitive function. According to Nigel Hoggard at the University of Sheffield, many of his patients showed “excessive signal changes in their cerebral white matter”. Although further research is needed to confirm a link between gluten allergies and brain tissue damage, it’s worth noting that any inflammation (like that caused by Celiac disease) has been known to increase a person’s risk of developing a mood disorder.
Discovering Genetic Intolerances to Gluten
A simple DNA test can tell you if you should be watching your gluten intake. For example, based on your genetic results, you could have a higher predisposition to Celiac disease.
If you’ve been experiencing stomach pain, bloating, irritability, brain fog (mental fatigue) or have been feeling lethargic, you may want to experiment with a gluten-free diet to see what happens. It’s possible that following a gluten-free diet will eliminate many of these uncomfortable symptoms. Yes, you should still get tested for Celiac, but you could also cut out gluten to see if your symptoms dissipate. Included in your CircleDNA report are diet and nutrition reports that help you understand what foods you might be sensitive to, and help you discover your optimal diet plan.
Tips for a Gluten-Free Lifestyle
It can be hard to adjust to a diet without gluten. So many foods contain it, and it can be tough to navigate grocery stores and restaurants, despite the growing awareness around gluten sensitivity. Foods like pizza, pasta and pastries will be missed, but there are plenty of delicious alternatives to discover.
For example, beer can be swapped out for red or white wine, a healthier alternative.
Regular durum wheat noodles can easily be replaced with a plethora of alternatives, like:
- Spaghetti squash or spiralized zucchini (zoodles)
- Korean japchae noodles; they’re made from sweet potato starch and have the springy, chewy texture that zoodles lack
- Soba noodles made with buckwheat.
Additionally, there are plenty of alternatives to wheat flour such as rice, tapioca, chickpea or almond flour that can be baked with or used to bread chicken or veggies; have you ever had pakora?
Not only do these make delicious alternatives, but they’re also much more nutrient-dense than bleached wheat flour.
As you explore your options, keep in mind that many packaged gluten-free options (such as pizza crusts and sandwich bread) contain higher than average amounts of sugar and sodium and less dietary fibre. Get into the habit of reading the nutritional label before you decide to put it in your cart.
A Day In The Gluten-Free Life
A gluten-free diet can be nutritious and delicious. There is certainly no shortage of options when it comes to meals. A gluten-friendly menu might look like this:
Breakfast: Waffles or pancakes made with gluten-free flour, mini egg and sausage muffin cups or an omelette.
Lunch: A falafel platter with rice, tuna or taco salad (minus the chips) or quinoa tabbouleh.
Snacks: Fruit and yoghurt parfait (add toasted coconut to mimic the crunch of granola) popcorn, or seaweed crackers.
Dessert: Flourless chocolate cake, mousse or flan.
In this day and age, following a gluten-free diet is one of the easiest plans to stick to. For even more recipe inspiration, check out The Gluten-Free Blogger.
Could You Be At Risk For Celiac Disease?
Doctors aren’t sure what causes Celiac disease, but genes seem to be a factor.
Specific variants of the HLA-DQA1 and HLA-DQB1 genes (genes that provide instructions for making proteins) can increase your odds of developing Celiac disease.
A DNA test is a simple, fast and effective way of getting to know your body better, especially when you need answers to digestive problems. With a genetic test, you can know for certain whether or not you’re predisposed to Celiac because of a gene variation, and that knowledge can be instrumental in developing a treatment plan.