Classically, gluten sensitivity is associated with celiac disease, a condition characterized by symptoms that vary from mild gastrointestinal discomfort to serious malabsorption (diarrhea, abdominal bloating, and increased amounts of undigested food particles in the stool). Most of the time, these symptoms and accompanying damage to the small intestine improve when gluten-found primarily in wheat, barley, and rye grains-is removed from the diet.
There is a lot in the news about the gluten-free lifestyle these days, but gluten isn't necessarily a concern for most people. Having said that, the prevalence of celiac disease has increased dramatically in recent years, and it's not simply due to better detection methods. Until a few decades ago, celiac disease was thought to be relatively rare-estimated at 1 case for every 5,000 people in the United States. But celiac disease now affects as many as 1 percent of all Americans, while another 1 percent may suffer from non-celiac gluten sensitivity or gluten allergy.
In most cases, gluten elimination results in symptom improvement within a few days or weeks. In 8 out of 10 cases, you will know within a month of following a gluten-free diet if you've found the culprit. If you aren't feeling better after a month, it's a good idea to get a blood test for celiac disease. In fact, if you are experiencing symptoms consistent with celiac disease, it's important to rule it out- if undiagnosed, this autoimmune condition can pose serious health risks.
Keep in mind that if you test negative for celiac disease, you can still have a sensitivity to gluten. There are several blood tests that screen for a range of food allergies including gluten. ALCAT is the most comprehensive of these tests; visit alcat.com to learn more.
Something as simple as taking a B-complex daily offers considerable benefits in patients with celiac disease. In one double-blind study, 65 celiac patients on gluten-free diets received a daily dose of 800 mcg folic acid, 500 mcg vitamin B12, and 3 mg vitamin B6, or a placebo. After six months, levels of homocysteine-a factor implicated in cardiovascular disease and some cancers-dropped an average of 34 percent in patients on the vitamin regimen. Subjects also reported improved feelings of well-being, reduced anxiety, and better mood.
Other important supplements for people who are sensitive to gluten are digestive enzymes, especially preparations containing dipeptidyl peptidase IV (DPP-IV). This enzyme targets both gliadin (a derivative of gluten) and casein (milk protein) and is resistant to breakdown by other enzymes.
DPP-IV supplements are especially suggested for those on gluten-free diets to safeguard against hidden sources of gluten, often found in processed foods, restaurant meals, sauces and condiments. One of the best sources for gluten-free information is gluten.net.
*Editor's note: Products with DPP-IV include Garden of Life Raw Gluten-Free Support and Enzymedica GlutenEase.
A gluten sensitivity is a delayed non-IgE immune response to foods containing gluten. Symptoms can occur hours or even days after the offending food is eaten and can include diarrhea and/or constipation, as well as migraines, unexplained fatigue, skin problems such as eczema, and joint issues. If you have a food intolerance, your body does not produce the enzymes needed to digest a particular food. Symptoms are often immediate and frequently are limited to gastrointestinal problems such as gas, bloating, diarrhea, etc. Nether food sensitivities or intolerances relate to celiac disease, as they are not an autoimmune disease and do not damage the intestinal tract. -KE
Michael T. Murray, ND, is the author of more than 30 books on natural health, including The Encyclopedia of Natural Medicine, Third Edition. He is regarded as one of the world's top authorities on natural medicine, and is a sought-after lecturer and educator. Visit him online at doctormurray.com.