Gluten, a protein found in some grains, can cause life-threatening celiac disease (CD) for up to one in 133 people, and many researchers believe the condition to be under-diagnosed. For sufferers of CD, exposure to gluten triggers the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine, which is covered with fine protrusions called villi and microvilli that increase the surface area of the lining that absorbs nutrients from our food. Like a shag rug, each of the shaggy bits (villi) are covered in fuzz (microvilli). When the immune system attacks and flattens out these projections, nutrient absorption is hampered and malnutrition results, bringing on myriad potential health problems.
CD can develop at any point in life and often goes unreported, because victims initially may not have any noticeable symptoms. Long-term complications from malnutrition—can lead to anemia, osteoporosis, liver disease and cancer of the intestine. Even if a person does develop symptoms, he or she may not think to associate them with gluten, which each of us is exposed to many times a day, hidden in foods, beverages and even medications.
Several tests can indicate gluten sensitivity or intolerance, but CD is typically diagnosed with a biopsy of intestinal tissue or of tissue from a skin condition frequently caused by the disease. DNA tests are showing promise as a less invasive measure. There is no cure for CD, but if the patient meticulously avoids gluten, the gut can repair itself and symptoms can be avoided.
Martie Whittekin is a certified clinical nutritionist, syndicated radio host, columnist and lecturer. For more information about her books, Natural Alternatives to Nexium and Aloe Vera, Modern Science Sheds Light on an Ancient Herbal Remedy, radio show and health tips, visit RadioMartie.com.