Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that causes a genetically pre-disposed person’s small intestine to become damaged when ingesting gluten (a form of protein found in wheat and related grains). The Celiac Disease Foundation estimates that 1 in 100 people worldwide have this condition and that it is likely undiagnosed in 2.5 million Americans. In this condition the gluten from wheat, rye or barley cause the body to have an immune response that attacks the villi, which are small, finger-like tissues in the small intestine that help us absorb nutrients from our foods.
Because this condition is hereditary, people with a “first-degree relation” (parent, child or sibling) diagnosed with celiac disease have a 1 in 10 chance of having the disorder as well.
The symptoms of celiac disease can be varied, including gastrointestinal distress, fatigue, anemia and other nutritional deficiencies, or reproductive issues. Each person experiences unique symptoms and for various periods of time after eating gluten, making it easy for the disease to go undiagnosed.
Because it interferes with nutrient absorption, other complications can arise from long undiagnosed or uncontrolled celiac disease. These include but are not limited to: coronary artery disease, osteoporosis, slowed growth in children and additional autoimmune disorders.
A blood test can tell if you are likely to have celiac disease whereas an intestinal biopsy can diagnose for certain whether or not the condition exists.
The only treatment for this condition is to adhere to a strict gluten-free diet.
Gluten in contained in wheat and its cousins (durum, einkorn, emmer, spelt, kamut, farina, graham and semolina), rye, barley and triticale. Other grains like rice and oats have no naturally occurring gluten.
What about “Gluten Sensitivity”?
There is also a condition known as Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity. These patients may experience some of the same symptoms that celiac positive patients exhibit upon gluten ingestion but they test negative for the actual condition. Many of the symptoms mimic those of celiac disease but also may include abdominal pain, foggy headedness, headaches or numbness and tingling. At this point there is not much known on the causes or risks of this condition.
Like celiac disease, the way to address this is a strict gluten –free diet.
How does Chinese Medicine view celiac disease?
Chinese Medicinal disease processes are understood by deciphering what organ systems are not functioning fully, thus it is natural to diagnose celiac disease as some sort of Small Intestine disorder, and secondarily it does show us as what we could call a Small Intestine “heat” (maybe toxin) and “dampness”. The root cause is usually found to be a poorly functioning Spleen and Lung complex, both of which are involved in immune system function system, which in turn gives rise to a condition where certain elements of food (gluten) cause damage to the tissues of the body. A weak Spleen is unable to maintain these tissues and important parts of the digestive tract can be damaged or destroyed.
So how does Chinese Medicine treat celiac disease and Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity?
Acupuncture treatments and herbal formulas will be created to treat these patients by doing the following:
First, the underlying cause of the weak and imbalanced immune system and digestive system (Lung and Spleen) is addressed.
Second, individual symptoms and Small Intestine damage are addressed to heal the digestive tract, aid in nutrient absorption and offer relief as the body heals.
A strict gluten-free diet may also be recommended. In the case of celiac patients, this is something that may have to be adhered to indefinitely. Non-celiac patients may become more gluten tolerant as the body’s function increases.
Navigating the world without gluten:
Fortunately, there are a lot of options for those who cannot eat gluten. It becomes necessary to read food labels, especially on processed foods. Here are some terms to look for on labels:
- “Naturally free of gluten” – foods in which there is no gluten in their standard form.
- “Prepared without external gluten contamination or produced without external gluten contamination”- foods which are processed, packaged or prepared without the use of gluten containing ingredients.
- “Produced in a gluten-free environment or on dedicated gluten-free equipment”– foods processed and produced in/on equipment and facilities where gluten containing foods are not allowed in order to avoid incidental contamination.
There are apps and websites available that help gluten sensitive and celiac patients navigate eating out and purchasing safely produced and processed foods.