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  • Lisa Jevens

Gluten free in your 50s and beyond

We've all seen the words "gluten free" on food labels and menus more and more these days, denoting a food is free of gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Why is this suddenly important, and should you care? Perhaps.

Going gluten free is more than just a diet trend. It reflects the fact that about 1 percent of the population has celiac disease and an additional 6 percent of people, or 18 million Americans, have non-celiac gluten sensitivity — many of whom are only now becoming aware of it.

Most people diagnosed with celiac disease are in their 40s and 50s, says Alice Bast, president of National Foundation for Celiac Awareness.

Celiac disease was once thought to be a rare childhood disease that kids eventually outgrew. But it is now known to be a genetic autoimmune digestive disease that damages the villi of the small intestine and interferes with the absorption of nutrients in people of all ages. Eating gluten triggers symptoms in those who have the genes.

Treating gluten issues

The danger of letting celiac disease go untreated is that it can lead to a number of other disorders including infertility, reduced bone density, neurological disorders, some cancers, and other autoimmune diseases.

There is no cure for celiac disease, but adopting a gluten-free diet can heal the gut, stop debilitating symptoms, and restore proper nutrition. That is why we are seeing all those products on the shelves.

"The reason we are more aware of gluten in foods now is because celiac disease has become better identified, defined and more heavily studied worldwide in recent years," says Bast.

"We also know that the prevalence is increasing. We know from a 2009 study in Finland that it is increasing in those over 55." Many in that study had mild or no symptoms but had complications related to untreated celiac disease.

One out of every 133 Americans is said to have celiac disease, but 83 percent are undiagnosed or diagnosed with other conditions instead.

That is because there are so many diverse symptoms, and it's often just the symptoms that get treated, Bast says. They include: bloating or gas, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, itchy skin rash, tingling/numbness in hands or feet, pale mouth sores, joint pain, delayed growth, poor weight gain, thin bones, infertility, headaches or migraines, depression, irritability, and discolored teeth. Both celiacs and the gluten-sensitive are helped by a gluten-free diet.

For Ann Burnham, a Batavia schoolteacher, going gluten-free was life-changing. "Just before turning 50, I was having strange physical issues that I never had before: heart palpitating, sustained fluttering. I also had this weird hitched breathing, and a constantly stuffed-up head," she says. "I went to the doctor and had a series of tests run and everything looked fine. Of course not one doctor asked me what I was eating."

Burnham started to look at her diet for answers. She tried an elimination diet where she added in various foods one by one each day to see what she reacted to. After feeling overfull after eating a rye cracker, then gaining weight the next day from adding one piece of bread, she started reading about gluten. "Every sign on the gluten websites pointed to me," she says.

Is gluten-free for you?

Doctors say it is important not to self-diagnose your gluten intolerance. It's best to see a doctor when you are having symptoms, as Burnham did, to make sure you don't have other health issues."

We recommend that the patient go to the symptom checklist at and print it out and take it to their doctor," Bast says. There are medical tests that can diagnose whether you have celiac disease.

The NFCA says that if you do have the genes, it's important to know and tell your family, because it is highly likely one of your first- or second-degree relatives also has it, and they might not find out until much later in life after some damage is done.

There is no medical test for non-celiac gluten sensitivity, but eliminating it from the diet will probably tell you whether gluten was causing your symptoms, as it did for Burnham.

"After eight months gluten free I lost 30 pounds, and feel like an entirely different person," she says. "I weigh what I did back in high school. My energy level has changed so much. I used to have a low dip at the end of the day, and I felt beaten down. I am sleeping differently with a decent sleep pattern. When I retire, I will be even healthier then than I am now."

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, Prime Time senior living section on August 11, 2013.

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