Why is it that from 2004 to 2010, the gluten-free food industry has grown at a compounded annual rate of almost 30 percent?
Probably because one in 133 persons is now being diagnosed with a condition known as celiac disease. Patients with celiac disease are unable to tolerate a protein called gluten, which is found in the grains wheat, barley and rye.
The inability to digest these grains when eaten leads to inflammation of the small intestines manifested by destruction of microscopic hairs, called "villi," lining the small intestines.
Without these villi, the patient is unable to absorb vitamins, minerals and other vital nutrients, and malnutrition and anemia ensue.
Young children who develop celiac disease are particularly vulnerable as their growth and normal development can be stunted.
Although the precise reason some people cannot digest gluten is not known, an auto-immune reaction is the most likely culprit resulting from either environmental stimuli and/or purely inheritable factors.
Also, people who do develop celiac disease exhibit a wide variety of symptoms and each to varying degrees.
The only thing that is certain is that a gluten-free diet for these patients is the only thing to affect any symptom in a positive way.
Substitutes for wheat, barley and rye are plentiful and include potato, rice, soy, amaranth, quinoa and buckwheat or bean flour.
These gluten-free sources are now being used to produce breads, pastas, snacks and other nutritious foods for celiac disease sufferers to consume without worry. Some medicines and lipsticks that may also contain gluten are being made in a gluten-free form.
The diagnosis of celiac disease is sometimes hampered due to the variety of symptoms one patient may develop over time compared to another patient.
Frequently, other disorders are mistakenly suggested due to their similarity to celiac disease; anything from irritable bowel to diverticulosis to iron-deficiency anemia or chronic fatigue syndrome.
The definitive diagnosis lies with anti-body blood testing and small intestine biopsy to examine the villi.
The longer a patient goes undiagnosed or misdiagnosed and not treated with a gluten-free diet the greater the chance of developing long-term complications.
But following a gluten-free diet gives the small intestines time to heal and prevents further damage; this healing most often occurs within three to six months for children but up to two or three years for adults.
Since celiac disease is hereditary, family members of a person with the condition may wish to be tested, especially if they suffer from symptoms that cannot be explained by other medical conditions.
Anyone suspecting that they may suffer from celiac disease should seek out advice from their health care provider.
• Agnes Oblas is an adult nurse practitioner with a private practice and residence in Ahwatukee Foothills. For questions, or if there is a topic you would like her to address, call (602) 405-6320 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. Her website is www.newpathshealth.com.