Many people live with vague yet persistent symptoms that, even when evaluated by a physician, seem to have no rhyme or reason. The under-diagnosed conditions of celiac sprue and gluten sensitivity are increasingly common culprits of a wide range of non-specific health complaints. While close to unheard of a decade ago, evidence of the rising prevalence of acknowledged gluten intolerance is confirmed by the sprawling gluten-free sections in most major supermarkets. If familiar with the patterns that could indicate an intolerance to gluten, healthcare professionals can advise clients who may be affected to consider testing for this escalating problem.
About Gluten and Celiac
A protein contained in the grains of wheat, barley, rye and oats, gluten’s unique molecular structure lends a doughy/elastic consistency to flours derived from these grains. Because of gluten’s ability to stretch, gluten-containing grains are used extensively in breads and other baked goods to form a light, airy texture.
Also known as celiac sprue, celiac disease is a genetically inherited autoimmune disorder causing inflammation in the small intestine from the gluten protein. Scientific studies demonstrate that people are born with a genetic predisposition to celiac, and any trauma to the body such as surgery, stress, pregnancy or viral infections can ignite it. Approximately one in 100 people have celiac disease, most of which remain undiagnosed.
Gluten intolerance is a broad term, which includes all kinds of sensitivity to gluten. An estimated one in four have sensitivity to gluten without celiac disease. Constituting a growing number of healthcare visits, the correct term for these people is Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitive (NCGS).
Once in the digestive tract, gluten is broken down into its components, including an amino acid chain called gliadin. For those living with celiac or NCGS, the following problematic events are likely to occur:
- The absorption of gliadin in the small intestine triggers an inflammatory response that damages or completely disables the villi.
- The lack of functioning villi interferes with the absorption of all nutrients, and typically causes malabsorption and malnutrition.
- The damaged small intestine walls allows for large molecules to leak into the bloodstream.
- Detected as foreign invaders, these misplaced particles prompt the immune system to launch an attack.
Depending on the severity of the inflammation and the extent of damage to the intestinal villi, gluten sensitivity can cause a host of problems ranging from mild to severe. While often thrown into the category of irritable bowel or leaky gut syndrome, gluten sensitivity typically results in some (or all) of the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Gas and bloating
- Diarrhea and/or constipation
- Lots of oily, foul smelling stools
- Brain fog
- Joint aches and pains
- Muscle cramps
- Nerve pain
- Skin conditions like eczema
- Gastric reflux or heartburn
- Changes in weight
- Other food allergies
Several companies are actively searching for a drug or supplement to help those with gluten sensitivity. However, there is currently only one effective solution for those affected. Although it requires education and commitment, eliminating all foods containing gluten from the diet effectively stops symptoms and allows areas damaged by gluten to recover. Because a gluten sensitive person’s immune system sees this protein as a threat, many experts believe that skin products containing gluten must also be avoided. Of particular interest to the massage therapist, massage mediums containing wheat germ or hops have the potential to irritate the skin of someone with gluten sensitivity.
Besides carefully choosing massage oil or lotion, therapists may encounter clients who have many symptoms of gluten intolerance – yet have not been evaluated for celiac sprue or NCGS. Thus, a supportive practitioner who suggests testing for gluten sensitivity could help direct his/her client towards finally finding the answer to all that ails them.