Friday, August 24, 2012

What is Gluten?

If you had asked me that question two years ago, my answer would have been, "Wheat.  Right?"

Well, yes,  But there is more to it.

This post is for those of us who are just learning about gluten, and what it can do to those whose bodies don't like it. 

Gluten is basically a protein.

It is mainly found in wheat, barley, rye, malt, and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and rye)

What gluten does is make dough elastic, helps it rise, and is what makes bread oh-so-chewy-delicious.  These properties of gluten make it an ideal additive and filler in many processed foods.  

The problem is, there are people out there whose bodies don't like gluten.  If they wind up eating some [knowingly or not], their body will react.  The reaction will be based on one of three reasons:

The body is sensitive to gluten.  The term "gluten sensitivity" is kind of the catch-all phrase.  It simply means that the body doesn't like gluten and responds negatively.  If someone is sensitive to gluten, their body will react to eating gluten mainly in the digestive tract.  Possible symptoms would be diarrhea, bloating, gas [often the stinky kind], and abdominal pain.  In rare cases people will also get migraines, feel overly-tired, hyperactivity, joint pain, and even schizophrenia.  If they avoid eating gluten, they will feel better.  For some people [but not all], the sensitivity will go away over time and they can eventually eat gluten again.

Within the spectrum of gluten sensitivity, there are two specific diagnoses that doctors may find out is the case for someone.

A person is allergic to gluten.  This means that their immune system wrongly thinks the gluten is harmful, and reacts to it.  Common signs of a gluten allergy would be an upset stomach, rash, eczema, or in extreme cases, swelling of the throat and anaphylaxis.  It would be similar to someone who had a peanut allergy.  A person with a gluten allergy will have to avoid gluten completely in order to prevent having an allergic response.  In some cases, like children, people will "grow out" of the allergy.  Some people have it for their whole lives.

A person has celiac disease.  Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder.  What this means is that the body actually attacks itself instead of the gluten, causing long term damage to the person's body. In the case of celiac disease, the body attacks the cilia which line our intestines when that person eats gluten.  Our cilia are what help us digest nutrients from food.  For a person with celiac disease, they can't get enough nutrients from food because their cilia are destroyed, and they will show signs of malnutrition.  They may have serious stomach and intestinal issues [like diarrhea, gas, abdominal pain, etc.], unexplainable weight loss, nausea, vomiting, no appetite, and even can be lactose intolerant.

For people with celiac disease, they have to stop eating gluten permanently.  By keeping their system free of gluten, their body will eventually rebuild the cilia in their intestines [we're talking years].  The only way for them to keep their body healthy is to avoid eating gluten all together for the rest of their life.

So what's the point of all this?  I found that understanding what gluten was and how it affected the people I know  helped me be able to jump on board with the whole avoiding gluten as much as possible.  When I thought about how awful it would be to feel like crap [literally] all the time, I suddenly had an urge to dump everything in our kitchen that possibly had wheat in the ingredients.  I also developed a new appreciation for just how hard it is to eat gluten-free.  

I want help my husband feel better all the time.  I  also want to to make it easy for others to understand what eating gluten-free means.  

Over the next few months I am going to work on posting recipes that don't have gluten in them.  I am also working on creating easy references to restaurants and fast food places that offer gluten-free options. The goal is to make all this information into a database for people who are new at a gluten-free diet [or even those who have been at it for years], and also for people who are having a friend over for dinner who can't eat gluten.  

Happy Friday readers!  Hope you have a great weekend!

For more information about celiac disease, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation. 

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