What to Do if a Celiac Eats Gluten
Roughly 1 in every 133 Americans has celiac disease – that’s about 1% of the total population. It may not sound like a lot, but the shocking truth is that the incidence of celiac disease has increased by 4-fold over the past fifty years alone.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by gluten consumption that can reduce the body’s ability to absorb nutrients from the food you eat. At this time autoimmune diseases cannot be cured. The only way to prevent further damage to the digestive tract is to avoid gluten entirely.
People who don’t have celiac disease or gluten intolerance don’t have to think too much about what they eat. They can pick up a product off the shelf and throw it into their cart without looking. For someone with celiac disease, however, grocery shopping can be a much bigger challenge. They also have to be incredibly careful when going out to eat because even gluten free foods that have been in contact with gluten-containing foods are cross-contaminated and can cause a problem.
Accidental gluten ingestion can trigger a severe reaction and some very unpleasant symptoms. So, what do you do if you accidentally consume gluten? Keep reading to find out.
What Happens When You Eat Gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains including wheat, barley, and rye. Though the media might have you believing otherwise, it is not inherently dangerous or bad for you.
Unless you have celiac disease.
If you have celiac disease, consuming gluten triggers an immune response that damages the lining of the intestines. Even the smallest particle of gluten can cause a serious reaction and intestinal damage that could take months to heal. The reaction begins almost immediately after consumption, but what exactly is going on in your body?
The real mechanism behind a celiac’s negative response to gluten is a protein called gliadin. There are four different types of gliadin, two of which are associated with celiac disease in particular – it is the specific amino acids found in gliadin that trigger the autoimmune reaction.
When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, the immune system recognizes gliadin as a foreign invader and begins producing antibodies to fight it. Unfortunately, healthy cells are damaged in the process – particularly the villi lining the small intestine. Villi are tiny fingerlike projections that increase the surface area through which nutrients can be absorbed from food passing through the small intestine. When they are damaged by autoimmune activity, their function becomes impaired.
It is this damage to the villi and the resulting malabsorption of nutrients that contributes to some of the long-term symptoms associated with undiagnosed celiac disease. These symptoms may include fatigue, bone or joint pain, anemia, peripheral neuropathy, and depression or anxiety.
Steps to Take After Accidentally Ingesting Gluten
If you realize that you have accidentally ingested gluten, there are certain steps you should take immediately to start the healing process to recover as quickly as possible.
- Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated is very important, especially if you experience diarrhea, and extra fluids will help flush your system as well. In addition to drinking regular water, try coconut water or bone broth for electrolytes.
- Get some rest. Your body will need time to heal, so make sure you get plenty of rest. If you try to keep working or going to school while experiencing physical side effects, you could make things worse for yourself. If you can’t take a break entirely, do your best to at least take it easy.
- Take activated charcoal. If you’re experiencing a lot of gas and bloating, taking activated charcoal may help. The charcoal binds to toxins and helps to eliminate gas and bloating – just be sure to increase your water intake when using them to avoid constipation.
- Heal your gut. Taking probiotics will help to reestablish the balance of healthy bacteria in your gut and L-glutamine is an amino acid that is beneficial for gut repair. You can also take supplements to decrease inflammation such as omega-3 fatty acids, ginger, and turmeric.
After taking these steps for a few days, you should start to feel better. Even so, it is a good idea to make an appointment with your doctor just to check in. You can also try adding some light exercise after a couple of days to help with the mental side effects such as anxiety and depression.
How to Avoid Gluten in the Future
If you’ve had celiac disease for a while, you already know how to avoid gluten. Accidentally ingesting gluten could be a sign, however, that you’re not being as careful as you should be.
So, what should you do to avoid another accidental ingestion in the future? Here are some simple steps to start implementing now, if you haven’t already:
- Always check food labels. First look for the label “gluten free”. Any product that labeled so is more than likely safe to eat as the FDA only allows packaged foods with less than 20 parts per million of gluten to be labeled as such. Here is a great reference for helping you understand what to look for on a label.
- Keep a gluten free kitchen. You may need to keep separate utensils and cookware to avoid cross-contamination at home.
- Label everything. If some of your family members don’t follow a gluten free diet, make sure everything is labeled so they know what they can and cannot touch. Items such as toasters, cutting boards, pots/pans, and other kitchen utensils need to be kept separate at all times.
- Be proactive. When you go out to eat, be proactive about choosing a restaurant that offers gluten free options and follows precautions against cross contamination.
- Speak up. In addition to finding a restaurant with gluten free options, talk to your server and to the manager about how to avoid cross contamination.
Celiac disease is by no means easy to live with but, by following a gluten free diet, you can repair your gut from the damage and experience relief from symptoms. There is always the possibility that you might accidentally ingest some gluten, but the more you educate yourself and the more careful you are, the less likely it is to happen.