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What Is Gluten?

Most of us have heard the term “gluten free”. You may know someone who lives a gluten free lifetsyle by choice, has a wheat allergy/gluten sensivity or that may even have celiac disease. As our dietary and health issues have been significantly changing in the U.S. over the last few years, these conditions more commonly diagnosed and awareness of gluten is rapidly increasing amongst people.

I was diagnosed over 20 years ago as having celiac disease and was warned if I did not stop eating gluten, that I would eventually become very ill (worse than I already was!). Clearly, my body despised gluten and I had all the signs; a distended “pooch” in my lower abdomen, I felt sluggish and lethargic all the time, often felt like my brain was “foggy” (yes, I am blond, no that had nothing to do with it), I was always sick with some illness; catching everything going around and I always had stomach issues and pain associated with them. I had eczema and rashes that would just appear and it got so bad at one point that my eyelashes completely fell out.

Being really young at the time of my formal diagnosis. I stuck with it for a bit, but soon rebelled against it just wanting to be "normal". It was a terrible choice on my behalf and it finally clicked one day when I realized I was spending more and more time at the doctors office for a long list of ailments. I was sick and tired of feeling sick and tired and I was being held back from the things I wanted to actively do. The day I made a conscious decision to give up gluten completely was the wisest choice I could have made for myself and I've not looked back since!

I write this through the eyes of experience. Over the past 22 years, I have read and learned as much as I possibly could about gluten and it’s effects on the body. When I was first diagnosed, it was not easy finding information or products to help the process. I really had to do my homework since it was way, way before living a gluten free lifestyle turned popular.

What’s my credibility? Well, over 22 years of personal experience and I am a Certified Health Coach, Family Herbalist and Certified Food Literacy Educator. My library is full of nutritional books that I have done my own research with and I regularly attend events focusing on nutrtion and celiac disease. I have always felt that knowledge is power and when I was diagnosed and decided to become completely gluten free for good, I wanted to know everything there was to know about my condition.

So what exactly is gluten? Gluten is a special type of protein-a binding protein, that is commonly found in rye, wheat and barley. Therefore, it is found in most types of cereals and in many types of bread. However, not all foods from the grain family contain gluten. Examples of grains that do not have gluten include wild rice, corn, buckwheat, millet, amaranth, teff, quinoa, sunflower seeds and oats (processing oats in factories on equipment can lead to gluten cross-contaimnation which is why you'll see GF oats and regualar oats at the grocery store).

Gluten enables bread to rise before it is baked. In addition, gluten firms up when it is cooked and, with the help of starch, helps ensure the bread maintains its proper shape. Gluten also has an absorbent quality, which is why bread is capable of soaking up broth. On the downside, gluten is believed to be partly responsible for causing bread to become stale. In this day and age, gluten is added to an absurd amount of foods and it is doubled in most commercial breads to give the bread that light, fluffy feeling and to make the dough go further.

Incidence of gluten intolerance is widespread. 70% of Americans with a European descent have a gluten sensitivity or worse and many don’t even know it. Upwards of 15 percent of the entire American population suffer from this condition, but only about five percent of these people have been diagnosed and treated.

These are symptoms for gluten intolerance and celiac disease. The two conditions somewhat fall into the same category, however they are very different at the same time.

  • Weight loss or weight gain

  • Nutritional deficiencies due to malabsorbtion e.g. low iron levels

  • Gastro-intestinal problems (bloating, pain, gas, constipation, diarrhea)

  • Fat in the stools (due to poor digestion)

  • Aching joints

  • Depression

  • Eczema

  • Head aches

  • Exhaustion, low energy

  • Irritability and behavioral changes, mood swings

  • Infertility, irregular menstrual cycle and miscarriage

  • Cramps, tingling and numbness

  • Slow infant and child growth

  • Decline in dental health

Celiac disease is an immune reaction, which is a severe onset allergic reaction, to gluten. While celiac disease is initially an autoimmune disorder, it is also a disease of malabsorbtion, because essential nutrients are not absorbed. Therefore one of the most devastating symptoms of long-term undiagnosed celiac disease is malnutrition.

Gluten intolerance often has a slower onset than celiac disease, and may be hard to diagnose due to the broad range of symptoms and causes. Many people experience different symptoms or have symptoms that are similar to another condition and are often misdiagnosed. Often times, an intolerance is not picked up by testing so many people are misdiagnosed with IBS, ulcers, Crohn's Disease and several other conditions.

The simplest way to discover whether or not you are sensitive or intolerant is to take 2 weeks off of gluten completely. Do this when you don’t have any big parties or fun things going on so you can stay on track. Now when I say completely, I mean do not even have one bite of something containing gluten. No soy sauce, no soup with a sprinkle of wheat, not one bite of pizza…it’s only for two weeks and if you feel better it will be the best thing you could have done for yourself!

Now, once your two weeks of no gluten is done, start introducing gluten back in slowly with different foods, one by one. If you get a reaction, you will know what food causes it. You will know if you feel better without the gluten almost right away and if you do, cut the gluten for good! If you don’t really notice a difference, go back to the gluten life you were leading. Plain and simple, you can figure out whether you feel better without gluten often times much faster than going to the doctor and waiting for tests to be done and without the doctor bill!

If you were to notice a huge, significant difference, it would be a good idea to get tested to find out if you have celiac disease or not. If you do, there will be a lot of healing that will be necessary for your intestinal walls, so it may be a good idea to know for sure.

Just remember, one bite of gluten is like dropping one drop of red food coloring into a bucket of water. You see it go in and disperse...only with gluten, it disperses and if you have an immune respocse, an intolerance or full blown allergy, then your body starts to attack that little tiny amount. This creates a domino effect of symptoms that can range from simple gas and bloating to violent vomiting and illness for some patients, depending upon the severity of the issue.

So in short...if you do in fact find out you have a reaction, the best thing to do for yourself is to stop eating it all together. It’s not easy at first, but when you finally commit and just do it, your world will become a much better, healthier and happier place for you to be.

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