Found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley, gluten is the stuff that makes it possible for bread to rise—it gives it the structure to expand up rather than out. However, for nearly one percent of Americans, it is indigestible. These people have a condition called celiac sprue, which is a sensitivity to molecules in a component of wheat gluten called gliaden. These molecules cause bowel inflammation, which damages the small intestine and keeps the person from properly absorbing nutrients from food. Celiac is particularly common in people with conditions such as type 1 diabetes, lupus, thyroid disease, Down syndrome, and colitis.
However, most people don’t have significant symptoms, with the possible exception of slight fatigue as malabsorption leads to malnourishment over the long term. When celiac is this mild, however, even that might not be severe enough to be recognized as a symptom. Other patients are less lucky. For them, celiac means bloating, gastrointestinal distress, bloating, diarrhea, bruising, flatulence, even infertility and nosebleeds.
Another symptom people with celiac often experience is "brain fog," or confusion and cognitive difficulties that affect attention, memory, and problem solving abilities. A new study suggests that this may actually be related to intestinal health in celiac patients, and that a gluten-free diet, the main tool in managing the disease, and also help restore mental functioning. People with celiac who switched to gluten-free eating were better able to focus, the study showed.
There is currently no treatment for celiac disease. Unlike lactose intolerance, which can be addressed by taking enzymes which digest the problem nutrient, there is no way for people with celiac to eat gluten safely. Nor can the damage to the intestines be easily repaired, though a gluten-free diet will not only help avoid further problems, but will also let the intestines heal naturally. Celiac disease means a life of looking out for gluten in foods.
However, avoiding gluten is not as difficult as it sounds; many common foods are gluten-free, such as beans, eggs, and most dairy, and nowadays there are plenty of gluten-free substitutes that compare quite well to the originals. Even many grains, such as arrowroot, cornmeal, quinoa, rice flour, flax, soy, and teff, are gluten-free. The biggest difficulty is avoiding cross contamination in other people’s kitchens but with a little planning this can easily be dealt with.