May is Celiac Disease Awareness Month

In recent years, a flood of bakeries, pizza joints, convenience foods, and DIY manuals have hit the market devoted to people living gluten-free.  This is great news for one out of every 133 Americans who have been diagnosed with celiac disease and have to avoid gluten–the protein found in wheat, barley, and rye.  People who had previously been on their own to patch together a convenient, gluten-free diet–or struggle to explain to a waiter what foods they needed to avoid–are now finding a growing number of food options and an increasing level of awareness to help them manage their gluten-free lives.

Celiac disease, is an autoimmune disease in which ingesting the protein called gluten triggers an inflammatory response in the intestines. Having celiac disease isn’t just about avoiding grains. Wheat is also an additive used to thicken food and often times there is gluten found in foods like sauces and gravy.  For people with a gluten-allergy this means carefully decoding food labels, drilling your server when eating out, and packing snacks.

So, what happens when a “celiac” eats gluten?  The protein in wheat (gliadin), barley (hordein), and rye (secalin) elicits an immune response that damages the lining of the intestines.  This reaction can cause acute symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, abdominal pain, and fatigue. If left untreated celiac disease may also lead to long term nutritional deficiencies, weight loss, concentration difficulties, and irritability.  Currently, the only effective treatment is strict, lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet, which usually quells symptoms within 2 weeks and reverses most, if not all, intestinal damage within 12 months.  This diet isn’t all about restricting foods, since staples like corn, potatoes, rice, and beans are safe for individuals with celiac disease.  Also safe to eat are all kinds of fruits and vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, eggs, and nuts.

So many more people are being diagnosed with celiac disease these days, yet there is still so much to learn about detection and the disease itself.  A recent study compared 45 year old blood samples from a group of Air Force men and women with samples from present-day men to examine the prevalence of undiagnosed celiac disease and related deaths.   What they found was a 400% increase in prevalence over the last 45 years in the United States, which confirmed the results of a similar study done in Finland in 2007.  The researchers suggest that such a dramatic increase can only be attributed to the slow evolution of the human immune system in response to the rapid changes in growing and processing gluten-containing grains in our diets–as well as the and sheer volume of the gluten-containing grains we consume.

Recently, talk of gluten-binding polymers and an immune-modulating treatment for celiac disease has made some headlines, but a treatment for celiac disease is still probably still many years away.  So this May, in honor or Celiac Awareness month, join your favorite gluten-free friend for a delicious gluten-free meal to show your solidarity!

To learn more about celiac disease, find restaurants in your area, or learn about living gluten-free, check out the resources below:

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