Celiac disease was once considered rare. But according to the University of Maryland and the University of Chicago Celiac Research Centers, it is possible 1 in150 people in the Untied States suffer from this disease, with under 100,000 people having been formerly diagnosed. Is this a startling statistic? Yes, it is. And it is important we strive for greater public awareness and understanding of Celiac disease. It is a disease that if left untreated or undiagnosed stands to greatly diminish quality of life, and become life threatening.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects the digestive process. In this condition, the small intestine lacks the ability to produce the enzyme that breaks down gluten, a protein found in wheat, spelt, kalmet, barley and rye. When the offending grain or food containing gluten is consumed, anti-bodies in the immune system are released to attack the gluten, and in so doing, destroy the villi (microscopic finger-like hairs that line the walls of the small intestine) and the mucosal lining. The only cure for this disease is to permanently eliminate gluten from the diet, thus allowing the body to heal and hopefully regenerate function.
Eliminating gluten from the diet and lifestyle is no easy task. It can be frustrating in our modern day world of convenience. Wheat and gluten play a major role in our lives. Take, for example, a simple trip to the sushi bar. It seems innocuous, but soy sauce contains wheat, as does the imitation crab meat. There is gluten in over the counter medications, processed foods. There is even wheat in things we don’t consume, such as Playdough, shampoo and lotion.
While herbal and alternative medicine do not offer a cure for celiac disease, the right combination of plant medicines and nutritional supplements coupled with a gluten free lifestyle can restore body function and alleviate symptoms. And while you may lament your food losses, you will celebrate your new found health.
Symptom pictures of disease are complex and contradictory from person to person. Celiac disease is no exception. While one person may experience constipation and weight gain, another may experience diarrhea and weight loss.
Symptoms that are the most irritating and interfere with quality of life are more commonly considered in the diagnosis process. They are as follows: diarrhea or constipation, weight loss or gain, abdominal pain and bloating, malnutrition, muscle weakness, anemia, depression, edema in the lower limbs from poor protein assimilation, and poor concentration. In children, there is also the inability to grow/thrive, poor tooth and bone development accompanied by tooth decay, and a distended and very sensitive belly.
Organ system damage that results in more extreme cases shows up in test results, but is not typically felt by the sufferer. Some issues that come about may be, but are not limited to, adrenal and pancreatic insufficiency, high liver enzymes, inflammation of the gallbladder or chronic urinary tract infections.
And there is still another pattern we have observed in the alternative health field that some who practice modern medicine see as well. It is the fact that damage from celiac disease can become disruptive to the point where another disease may arise. Some are auto-immune, such as Chrons and Graves disease. But severe celiac sufferers are prone to certain forms of diabetes as well as some types of lymphatic cancers.
Herbal Support for Celiac
When considering an herbal protocol, it is important to take stock of what needs should be addressed. Support for symptom relief is important, because is makes for a more comfortable healing process. But undoing organ system damage, such as chronic intestinal inflammation, liver inflammation or pancreatic insufficiency, is just as important. It sets the stage for a more complete and permanent healing process. Also important are considering the level of stress and unrest the client has been under, and supporting with appropriate adrenals and nervine tonics.
Keep in mind there is no one size fits all of herbal medicine.
One must decrease and control the amount of inflammation in the body. Inflammation is a part of the disease foundation. It disrupts the digestive process wreaking further havoc, the immune system, and is the precursor for greater ills, such as other auto-immune conditions and cancer.
Liver inflammation is seen in test results where liver enzymes are high. A very simple herb used to protect the liver from further damage, and reduce liver inflammation is milk thistle (Silybum marianum). It is very effective in combination with yellow dock and red root, two plants which will be discussed further here.
Villi in the lining of the small intestine are home to tiny lymph vessels. Inflammation and congestion in this part of the lymphatic system disrupts assimilation of nutrients. My favorite lymphatic tonic for relieving the inflammatory response here is red root (Ceanothus americanus). Red roots astringent properties give it the ability to re-tone the mucosal lining of the small intestine, have anti-diarrheal effects, and lessen lymphatic inflammation and congestion, thus increasing the capacity for nutrient absorption by the villa. This also decreases stress on the immune system. When combined with Milk thistle, David Winston tells us it may be an effective treatment for acute pancreatitis, something associated with complications of Celiac Disease.
Inflammation and surface damage of the mucosal lining of the small intestine affects the health of the villa, and the ability of the small intestine to function optimally and fully heal. Marshmallow root (Althea officinalis) is a mucilaginous root that can speed healing, and reduce inflammation. Its soothing nature also lessens irritation. The affects of this slippery tea one would drink for effective treatment are felt in the respiratory tract, urinary tract, and large and small intestine. Slippery elm bark is often used for the same purpose, but due to the fact that it is an endangered plant species, I prefer marshmallow root, and find it as effective. Bring ¼ oz. of marshmallow root in 1 quart of water to a boil, turn down to simmer, and let set for 30 minutes. Drink this tea by itself at least 30 minutes before or after consuming another herb, supplement or prescription. The mucilaginous effects of this plant can sometimes impede the absorption of other drugs, supplements or herbs.
There are cases where symptoms and inflammation do not respond to a gluten free diet. In these instances, a person is diagnosed with a more extreme form of the disease, called refractory celiac. Treatment for refractory celiac is steroids.
There are two plants that work through a similar pathway steroids do to relieve inflammation. One is boswellia. It is an Ayurvedic plant that has long been used to treat inflammation in the gastrointestinal tract. The other is turmeric. Turmeric also has a long history of use as an anti-inflammatory. It has also been found effective as an anti-oxidant, to protect the liver from damage, as an anti-bacterial, and to lower blood pressure.
Liver and Pancreatic Insufficiency
Milk thistle was mentioned previously in support of liver and pancreatic insufficiency. There are a few other bitter liver tonics that restore healthy liver function by stimulating bile production.
Yellow dock (Rumex crispus) is a bitter liver tonic that combines well with milk thistle to bring down enzyme levels. It also increases the livers ability to absorb and use iron. Yellow dock is specifically indicated for chronic skin problems that result from a poor assimilation of fats, and can be used to relieve constipation.
Dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis) is also an excellent general bitter to consider. Like yellow dock, it inspires the liver to release bile, but dandelion root stimulates hydrochloric acid, pancreatic and small intestine secretions, which aid in the breakdown and assimilation of sugars and nutrients. It is indicated for poor fat metabolism, and is a rich source of fructoligosacharides, or FOS, food for healthy bowel flora.
Intestinal Cramps and Bloating
Cramping and bloating are distressing. They are also a sign that there is unrest in the digestive tract. Most of these symptoms are relieved with the elimination of gluten, but there are times when the problem will persist.
Intestinal cramps are a very painful thing to experience. Not all herbalists or alternative practitioners treat them the same. But having some personal experience with this issue, as well as having had a lot of clients with digestive diseases, I have a unique opinion as to how to deal with them.
The muscle of the small intestine is a smooth muscle. It responds to anti-spasmodics much the same way menstrual cramps do. I therefore recommend trying equal parts of cramp bark (Viburnum opulus) and black haw (Viburnum prunifolium) mixed together. They work together best. I recommend taking 60-120 drops of tincture every 15-20 minutes until the cramps are relieved.
Motherwort tincture is also an anti-spasmodic that serves as a nervine and heart tonic. If in a pinch, it works quite well for intestinal cramps, as well as anxiety that may accompany the sensation. I recommend using it the same way one would the Viburnums.
Plant medicines that aid the discomfort associated with poor digestion and are calming and soothing are peppermint, chamomile and lemon balm tea. Peppermint and chamomile are anti-inflammatory, while chamomile and lemon balm are nervine tonics.
Look into nervine and adrenal tonics specific to you to help relieve emotional distress associated with having a chronic condition, and to help restore the function of the endocrine system.
Celiac sufferers should be tested for specific deficiencies. But there are some general things to consider supplementing. Those who have celiac are often deficient in B vitamins, especially B-12. With the issue of anemia, a supplement of iron is appropriate until the body is capable of processing it from food sources. It is also highly recommended that an appropriate omega 3 fatty acid supplement be incorporated into the diet. Omegas 3’s are the anti-inflammatory fats. Examples of oils to use are high quality fish oils, or flax oil. I recommend beginning with 1 tablespoon daily. If this is well tolerated, it is good to increase it to 2. Vitamin K, E and D usually need supplementation. And it is always good when rebuilding healthy bowel flora to supplement with an enterically coated pro-biotic.
Due to pancreatic insufficiency, consider supplementing with pancreatic enzymes to aid the digestion of carbohydrates and sugars. I highly recommend Rainbow Light Advanced Enzyme System. It is tolerable by most individuals.
Resources on Line
Celiac disease is well supported and has a great presence on line. Some of my favorite web sites that do great service to the awareness and support of the illness are as follows. Karina’s Gluten Free Kitchen is an excellent resource/blog for original recipes. Karina is an artist! Check out the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness for a complete list of symptoms, studies, food alternatives, community support groups, and gluten free drug check list. The Gluten Free Mall (where one can buy gluten free licorice, which I can’t wait to try) has a host of information as well as products for purchase. They provide products that are gluten, dairy, casein, soy and egg free that are also kosher. And for more information on diagnostic testing, and the lack of accuracy in testing, visit americanceliac.org.
The task of gluten elimination may be displeasing, but it is easier to be gluten free now then it has ever been. The natural foods industry has risen to provide excellent alternatives, the internet has become a social and information support network, and alternative bakeries, such as Silly Yak located in Madison, WI, are becoming more mainstream.
I will admit, drastic lifestyle change can be sad and uncomfortable. But in this case, we get the opportunity to have a new and healthier experience. We are also given the chance to realize how important our health and quality of life can be. These are things that make gluten free worth it.