Tuesday, January 25, 2011

What is Gluten and why does it matter?

Day 1!

I want to state a couple of things, just for the record.  I am not a medical professional.  I am not a scientist.  In fact, this was me in college chemistry:
Image from Google Images, with my special additions.

I did not go to school for any of this.  The information that follows is my best understanding of the disease I deal with daily and the ways and resources that I have found and use to cope with it.  Feel free to question and/or correct me at any time (ahem...Mom).

I thought I'd get the basics out of the way first.  So, what the heck is gluten, anyway?

Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, rye and barley.  It is a large, sticky protein.  You know how bread pulls and stretches a little when you tear a piece off a loaf, how it has that signature chewiness?  That's because of gluten.  Because gluten is is so stretchy and sticky, it is a difficult protein for the human body to break down.  It tends to build up in the intestinal walls and takes a little extra energy for a body to fully break down.

To an extent, all human beings are slightly gluten intolerant, in the same way that all human beings are slightly lactose intolerant.  These proteins are just tough, but that doesn't necessarily mean they are bad or harmful; they are only harmful to those whose bodies just can't process them properly.  Those bodies fall into three categories.  I'm going to explain the different categories here, and get into signs and symptoms later.

Gluten Intolerant
Again, all human bodies are slightly gluten-intolerant, meaning that our bodies have to work a little harder on those bad boy proteins.  However, some bodies have a harder time than others.  Folks with varying levels of gastrointestinal complaints from slight to severe are probably gluten-intolerant and should lessen gluten (again, found in wheat, rye and barley) in their diets.  People in general should watch the amount of gluten they are eating on a regular basis, and if they find they are experiencing general slight malaise, should probably cut gluten for awhile to give their bodies a break.

Gluten (or Wheat) Allergic
We all know what allergies look like.  Someone with a gluten allergy will experience anything from rashes to hives, from asthma attacks to anaphylactic shock.  These folks can't have wheat at all, just like someone with a peanut allergy can't have peanuts at all.

Celiac Disease
Here's where people often get the most confused.  Celiac Disease is a genetic auto-immune disease, like Multiple Sclerosis or Lupus.  People are born with Celiac Disease, and for reasons not fully understood by the medical world, sometimes the signs and symptoms of the disease are latent until adulthood.  Some people born with CD have symptoms immediately as children, some never show symptoms until some random other time in life.  Some (like me) even show symptoms as children, then the symptoms disappear, only to reappear in adulthood.  I even heard of someone who was healthy all of his life, then developed symptoms and was diagnosed in his late 60s.  Crazy.

The immune system of a person with Celiac Disease recognizes the gluten protein as a foreign body it needs to attack and destroy, rather than a nutritional compound to break down and derive energy from.  When a person with CD eats, say, a piece of bread, the digestive system gets to work on breaking it down in order for the person to have the nutritional elements and energy the body needs to survive.  The food matter gets digested and makes it all the way to the small intestine before the adverse reaction starts.  Here, small, hair-like organs called villi line the small intestine and are responsible for the final breakdown of food and the absorption of nutrients from the food matter.  For unknown reasons, when the gluten proteins come into contact with those villi, some signal is triggered that says to the immune system, "Warning!  Attack!  Attack!  Danger!"  The immune system seems to think that those gluten proteins are harmful, foreign substances (like bacteria) that need to be destroyed.  Anti-bodies go to work destroying them, but in the process, they also harm or destroy those tiny (and massively important) little villi.

So why is this such a big deal?  Stay tuned!

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