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Gluten Free : Living Successfully with Celiac Disease

Elaine Blaisdell, Cumberland Times-News, Md.

People who have celiac disease -- a genetic disorder that damages the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food -- must maintain a gluten-free diet for the rest of their lives in order to remain free of symptoms, said to Angie Sutphin, a dietitian at Western Maryland Health System. There is no cure, pharmaceutical or otherwise, for the disease, the only treatment is a gluten-free diet.

Sutphin said that people dealing with celiac disease should learn to read labels carefully to see if the product contains gluten. Gluten is found in food that contains wheat, rye or barley, ingredients in most grain, pasta, cereal and many processed foods, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC).

Oats should be avoided as well because they often become contaminated after being stored in the same silos as wheat, rye and barley, according to Dr. William Mark, a gastroenterologist in Cumberland. Gluten is also used in some medications.

"Don't think of your condition as a death sentence. With practice and patience, you will find there are many foods you can enjoy on a gluten-free diet," said Sutphin. Gluten-free foods are not difficult to find. They include flours that are made of rice, soy, corn, potato or bean; nut flours (almond); quinoa; fresh meats, fish and poultry (not breaded, batter-coated or marinated); fruits; most dairy products; potatoes; rice and vegetables, according to Sutphin.

Foods other than beans, rice, potatoes and produce that are marked gluten-free typically tend to be more expensive, though most grocery stores have a gluten-free section, according to Mark. Mark provides his patients with a list of food they are not advised to consume, as well as a list to replace those foods.

For most people, following this diet will stop symptoms of celiac disease, heal existing intestinal damage and prevent further damage. Improvement begins within days of starting the diet, according to NDDIC. The small intestine usually heals in three to six months in children but may take several years in adults.

Eating a gluten-free diet also helps lessen the symptoms of people with autism and schizophrenia, according to Mark. "I don't have celiac disease and I wouldn't consume gluten. It's poisonous to your whole body," said Mark. "I have seen patients that have had hives for 20 years that go away after they stop eating gluten."

Symptoms of celiac disease vary from person to person but can include abdominal bloating and pain; chronic diarrhea, vomiting, constipation and weight loss. These symptoms are more common in infants and children, according to the NDDIC.

Some symptoms common in adults include unexplained iron-deficiency anemia; fatigue; joint or bone pain; arthritis; seizures; missed menstrual periods, infertility or recurrent miscarriage.

Celiac disease is diagnosed through blood tests and intestinal biopsies. Fifteen to 25 percent of the people who have the disease also have dermatitis herpetiforms, an intensely itchy blistering skin rash that usually occurs on the elbows, knees and buttocks, according to NDDIC.

Celiac disease affects one in 133 people, according to Sutphin. Among people who have a first-degree relative -- a parent, sibling or child -- diagnosed with celiac disease, as many as one in 22 people may have the disease, according to NDDIC. However, people can still have the disease even though no one in their family has it.

Other times, the gene exists but the body is able to prevent the disease from manifesting, according to Mark.

Contact Elaine Blaisdell at eblaisdell@times-news.com.

2011 the Cumberland Times News (Cumberland, Md.)