(ARA) - Going gluten-free has become an emerging nutritional topic and trend in the world of dieting and weight loss. Some celebrities even tout the gluten-free lifestyle as a way to shed pounds. But according to the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center, the gluten-free diet isn't a choice for at least 3 million Americans - it's a necessary way of life.
Celiac disease is a condition that affects certain individuals whose bodies react negatively to foods containing gluten - a protein found in wheat, barley and rye - causing damage to the lining of the small intestine. The damage prevents the small intestine from absorbing certain nutrients in foods, and the person will become malnourished.
Symptoms of celiac disease are different for everyone, but can include constipation, abdominal pain, diarrhea and bloating. However, many people with this condition don't have any digestive symptoms at all, but may have symptoms similar to those of a number of other illnesses such as fatigue, headaches, joint pain, short stature, delayed puberty, and more. The cause of celiac disease is an abnormal immune response to gluten, triggered in genetically predisposed individuals, hence in part hereditary. Other risk factors include type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, Down syndrome and microscopic colitis.
Leaving celiac disease untreated long-term can cause vitamin deficiencies that deprive some organs, such as the brain, bones and liver, of vital nourishment, which can result in permanent damage. It can also lead to osteoporosis, infertility, and in rare cases, intestinal cancer.
There is no cure or medication therapy for celiac disease; however, the condition can be managed by a lifelong change of diet. What many people don't realize is that it's not just the obvious foods - such as bread and pasta - that need to be avoided. Even small or trace amounts of gluten in the form of coating or filler, including those found in some over-the-counter medications, can be harmful. In addition, some drugs or food can become contaminated by equipment on which other gluten-containing products were manufactured.
Recently, one major pharmaceutical company has implemented a gluten-free labeling system and assurance program to make it easier for people with a gluten sensitivity to identify medication that is safe for them. Perrigo - the world's largest manufacturer of "store-brand" over-the-counter medications for the nation's leading retailers - was the first manufacturer in the United States to implement such a system. Now, many store-brand over-the-counter medications made for retailers by Perrigo have an easy-to-identify gluten-free statement or seal. This includes products in all of the company's best-selling categories, such as pain relievers, cold and allergy medications and antacids.
"Celiac is an emerging disease," says Dr. Stefano Guandalini, Medical Director of the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center and President of the North American Society for the Study of Celiac Disease. "It's more common now than ever and it's important for those with celiac or gluten sensitivity to be educated about everything they ingest that could cause them harm. Detailed labels and a raised awareness on the part of the manufacturer are a great way to keep everyone informed."
Guandalini also acknowledges that there is a lot of misinformation available about celiac disease and - to an even greater extent - gluten sensitivity.
"If you think you have this condition, go to a university medical or celiac center if there's one nearby, or ask your doctor to test you for celiac disease before beginning any arbitrary dietetic elimination," Guandalini says.