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Celiac disease

If you've heard about problems with gluten, this disease is probably what you heard about. It's relatively rare: only about 1 in 133 people have it, and sadly only a small percentage of them are ever diagnosed.

If you have celiac disease, you cannot eat any gluten. Ever. Period.

You've got a genetic condition that won't bother you if you don't consume gluten, but that can set off a major overreaction in your immune system if you do eat gluten.

Just the genes and the gluten aren't enough to cause celiac disease, though. You also need a trigger to turn on the problem genes. Common triggers include any type of major trauma to your body, such as surgery, pregnancy or a viral infection, along with something we're all familiar with: stress. So you might have the potential for celiac for years without ever realizing it, and you may have been consuming gluten without causing too many problems.

Once celiac disease is triggered, though, that's it. You've got it for life. From that point on, whenever you consume anything that contains gluten, your immune cells immediately try to attack the gluten molecule — and attack your body's cells at the same time. Even if you don't notice any symptoms, your small intestine is taking a hit every time you eat a piece of sourdough rye or grab a granola bar on the go. As a result, you aren't absorbing nutrients properly, and you're facing serious health risks for the future.

Because celiac disease is often misdiagnosed, you could end up eating gluten for years without realizing the harm it is causing to your body. In addition, celiac disease can trigger and exacerbate many of the other 140 autoimmune diseases that we know about. In fact, other autoimmune disorders occur 10 times more often in those with celiac disease than in the general population.

There is no cure for celiac disease, but there is a solution: yank the gluten from your diet. The disease doesn't affect you as long as you're not eating anything that contains gluten.

GLUTEN SENSITIVITY

Now, here's where things get fuzzy, but hang in there. In the United States, 30 to 40 percent of the population, including me, has some form of sensitivity to gluten that is not celiac disease but that is nevertheless a real problem with serious symptoms, including painful digestive problems, headaches, joint pain, infertility, osteoporosis, anxiety or depression. Gluten sensitivity also can damage your intestinal lining and produce leaky gut. And it can vastly increase your chance of gaining weight and making it nearly impossible to lose as long as you keep eating gluten.

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