March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Diet is the primary treatment for celiac disease and following a gluten-free diet significantly reduces many symptoms of the condition. People with celiac disease experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain and bloating, and nausea or vomiting.
Celiac disease is diagnosed using an endoscopic biopsy. But, for the biopsy to be accurate, the individual must be consuming gluten. If you believe you may have celiac disease, see your doctor before going on a gluten-free diet.
Reduce Side Effects with Diet
Abdominal pain and bloating affect up to about 80 percent of individuals with celiac disease. Females are more likely to report these symptoms than males. However, strictly following a gluten-free diet resolves abdominal pain and bloating symptoms in a vast majority — up to 97 to 100 percent — of people with celiac disease.
Celiac disease can slow the speed at which food travels through the stomach and intestine, which may cause discomfort that results in nausea or vomiting — which are symptoms reported in up to 44 percent of people with the disease. One study showed it took four hours for food to travel from mouth to the large intestine in those with the disease compared to only two hours in those without celiac disease. Following a gluten-free diet increased this speed to about 2½ hours, a rate similar to those without celiac disease. In another study, none of the individuals complained about nausea following a gluten-free diet.
Diarrhea is one of the most common and distressing symptoms among individuals with celiac disease. Two studies have shown that roughly 75 to 80 percent of individuals with the disease reported experiencing diarrhea. However, research shows that following a gluten-free diet improves diarrhea in the vast majority of patients. One study showed improvements within days; although, the average time needed for diarrhea to resolve was four weeks on a gluten-free diet.
Research also indicates that constipation is more common among people with celiac disease, and generally improves following a gluten-free diet. In one study of individuals with celiac disease, 39 percent of participants reported problems with constipation before following a gluten-free diet. After adopting a gluten-free diet for six months, the majority of those individuals reported their constipation had resolved.
A small number of individuals with celiac disease may struggle with continuing symptoms, such as diarrhea or constipation, even after several months of faithfully following a gluten-free diet. Seeking guidance and treatment from a physician that specializes in celiac disease is the next step. Other health issues can resemble or be present in addition to celiac disease, including small intestinal bacterial overgrowth — the most common — as well as malabsorption of a naturally occurring sugar in milk (lactose) or a naturally occurring sugar found in fruit (fructose), or a parasite infestation. Also, some individuals with celiac disease experience other gastrointestinal problems such as irritable bowel syndrome and inflammation of the colon.
A registered dietitian nutritionist can provide further guidance on following a gluten-free diet and meeting nutrient needs.