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What You Should Know about Gluten and Celiac Disease

Gluten-free food seems to be everywhere, as more and more people learn they have celiac disease – or just prefer to go gluten-free. But with so much buzz about gluten and its effects on your health, it's important to understand what it is.

Gluten is made of two different proteins and is found in cereal grains, including barley, rye and wheat. It is what makes dough feel elastic and gives bread its chewiness. Although it is mainly found in foods, gluten can also be found in everyday products, including medicines, vitamins or even lip balms.

People who have celiac disease cannot properly digest gluten. Celiac disease is an immune disorder that damages the small intestine. It affects about 1% of all people.

Symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • Stomach pain, gas and diarrhea
  • Feeling very tired
  • Losing weight

However, symptoms can vary greatly from person to person. A related condition, gluten sensitivity, produces similar symptoms but without causing damage to the intestines.

If you have celiac disease, your body overreacts to gluten. Eating gluten causes your immune system to attack the lining of your small intestine. Eventually, you'll have problems absorbing nutrients from food. You can become malnourished if you eat a lot.

The only treatment for celiac disease is a strict gluten-free diet. A dietitian can help you learn to avoid gluten. Besides wheat, rye and barley, you'll need to skip most grains, pastas, cereals and many processed foods. Remember to read all food labels and even check your vitamins and medications to see if they also contain gluten.

Celiac Disease and Diabetes

People with type 1 diabetes have an increased risk of getting celiac disease – the odds are one in 10. However, many people with type 1 diabetes and celiac disease have no signs. It's best to ask your doctor if you should be screened whether or not you have symptoms.

If you have type 1 diabetes, celiac disease makes it harder to control your blood glucose. Combined with diabetes, it increases your risk for heart disease and other complications.

Scientists believe the same genes contribute to celiac disease and type 1 diabetes. The conditions seem more harmful when combined. In one study, adults with both were more likely than those with either one to have blocked arteries. This places them at risk of having a heart attack.

For another study, in the journal Diabetes Care, researchers compared people with type 1 diabetes who were diagnosed with celiac disease with those with diabetes alone. Those diagnosed with celiac disease were more likely to have poorly controlled blood sugar and lower levels of "good" cholesterol. They also had more eye, kidney and nerve damage.

Fortunately, a gluten-free diet can help. The above study has shown that sticking with it for a year can improve blood glucose, cholesterol and kidney health.
If you think you may have celiac disease or gluten intolerance, talk to your doctor for more information.

Sources: Diabetes Care, Harvard Health Publications, Krames Staywell, LiveScience, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

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