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Nancy J. Miller-Ihli, PhD
Gluten Intolerance Health Impact
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Gluten Intolerance Health Impact

Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Although not inherent in oats, it can be found there as a contaminant due to processing. People who are sensitive to gluten have an autoimmune reaction and for some individuals the result is celiac disease. It is estimated by University of Marylands Dr. Alessio Fasano that as many as 1 in 133 people are affected. Interestingly enough only about one in 1,000 people are actually diagnosed and treated.
What would be some indicators that you are gluten intolerant? Individuals with gluten intolerance very often have gastrointestinal symptoms such as abdominal bloating, cramping and gas. Diarrhea and fatty stools are also very common and some individuals experience extreme constipation. Skin rashes are frequently seen and it is not at all unusual for an individual to have one or more additional autoimmune diseases.
Gluten intolerance or celiac disease is not an allergy. It is food immune reactivity or intolerance. What that means is that symptoms may not be observed until there have been multiple exposures and the effects can be long lasting. With gluten intolerance there is no real “cure” and there is currently no medication to alleviate symptoms. The only treatment is to eliminate all gluten (wheat, rye, barley and uncertified oats) from your diet forever.
The physiological effects of gluten intolerance result in a flattening of the villi in your small intestine. Villi are hair-like structures that permit nutrients from food to be absorbed into the bloodstream. Gluten acts like glue to coat and flatten the villi reducing nutrient absorption and the result is that the person may become malnourished regardless of how much they eat.
Children often get sever diarrhea and in some instances their growth is so much affected that they are not a normal height for their age group. Adults can lose weight and sometimes they gain signficiant weight due to fluid retention. Poor nutrient absorption can lead to anemia (due to inadequate iron and vitamin B12), osteoporosis (due to poor absorption of calcium and vitamin D), easy bruising (due to absorption of Vitamin K), peripheral neuropathy (nerve damage due to thiamine and vitamin B12 deficiency, muscle weakness (due to low potassium and magnesium) and also infertility.
Can you be overweight and undernourished? Absolutely! A recent report estimates that 30+% of adults diagnosed with celiac disease are overweight. I teach low glycemic lifestyle classes and if someone is following the program carefully eating well and exercising but not losing weight, 90% of the time when they eliminate gluten from their diet they start to drop weight and get excellent results.
Ive already indicated that the only treatment is a gluten-free diet. Is that difficult to do? Once you understand that gluten makes you ill, that it is causing a negative immune response in your body that can have a long lasting impact on your health it is usually easier. Beware of all the special gluten-free foods however, as many of those are very high in sugar and high glycemic alternative flours such as rice flour are most often used. High glycemic eating can increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, increase your risk for diabetes and cause excessive weight gain. Bottom line there is no free lunch!

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