Do you see ‘Complaint Department’ written across my forehead?” I asked my husband as I hung up from my niece’s phone call.
My niece was in pain as usual — bloated, cramping and working in a very small space.
“Co-workers can hear every bathroom noise!” she wailed.
My husband and I agreed she seemed to be a bit of a hypochondriac.
Then suddenly my niece’s health complaints stopped.
She eliminated gluten. Whoops, our hypochondriac cured herself.
Her turnaround made me confront my own judgmental nature about gluten and inspired me to actually research the topic. I found that there are two medical conditions associated with gluten intolerance:
This is an established diagnosis (with identifiable genetic markers) that affects an estimated 1 percent of the U.S. population.
According to the Mayo Clinic, celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating foods containing wheat, barley and rye gluten.
Gluten triggers an immune response in the small intestine, which produces inflammation with potential to damage the lining of the small intestine, preventing absorption of some nutrients. WebMD names the nutrients as fat, calcium, iron and folate. If left untreated, complications from the disease can include iron deficiency, osteoporosis and lymphomas of the small intestine.
Fortunately, testing for nutritional deficiencies through blood tests, stool samples or endoscopy can definitively diagnose celiac disease.
The second group of people reporting reactions to eating gluten have lately been labeled as “gluten sensitive.”
Dr. Stefano Guandalini at University of Chicago, in talking to WebMD, said: “Gluten sensitivity is a condition that doctors once dismissed, but now recognize as legitimate.”
Since it’s important to separate those with celiac disease from those with gluten sensitivity, Guandalini warns against starting a gluten-free diet without first being tested for celiac disease. Going gluten-free can eradicate the antibodies found in the tests, thus delaying diagnosis of celiac disease and treatment of its dangerous complications.
Kenneth Chang’s 2013 New York Times article, Gluten-Free, Whether You Need It or Not, explained that gluten sensitivity is “less a diagnosis than a description — someone who does not have celiac disease, but whose health improves on a gluten-free diet, worsening again if gluten is eaten.”
The above may seem academic, but both celiac disease and the new diagnosis of gluten sensitivity are on the rise according to Guandalini, who’s spent the past 40 years studying gluten-related diseases.
Meanwhile, a 1.5 billion dollar industry fills grocery shelves with products labeled “gluten free.”
Health professionals — besides cautioning people against self-diagnosis — agree that going gluten free isn’t necessarily a healthier option for 99 percent of the population who can digest gluten. In an article on ScientificAmerican.com, dietitian Katherine Tallmadge said: “Whole grains, which contain gluten, are good sources of fiber, vitamins and minerals.”
Not all gluten-free products are created equal either. Potato chips can be certified gluten free, but they aren’t a health food.
The article, of course, also pointed out that skipping all packaged foods — and eating a whole-foods diet of fruits, vegetables and small amounts of lean protein — will result in a healthy, virtually gluten-free diet anyway. (Learn more at celiac.org.) I shared my research with my niece. She’s ignoring it.
First, her insurance doesn’t cover gluten testing, and second, she feels so much better, she’ll never return to wheat.
In the meantime, I send her garbanzo-flour raspberry muffins, which everybody likes.
Carrie Luger Slayback, in addition to being a freelance writer, is award-winning teacher and champion marathoner.