Celiac disease, if undetected, can have significant negative consequences for athletes and non-athletes alike. The disease affects the digestive system and interferes with the absorption of nutrients by damaging or destroying villi in the small intestine. Villi are tiny fingerlike protrusions that allow nutrients to be absorbed from food into the bloodstream. When villi are damaged, the individual becomes nutrient deficient, no matter how much or how high the quality of food is consumed.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, where the immune system mistakenly attacks and destroys healthy body tissue. The trigger for the disease is consuming gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Some sources consider oats to be a possible trigger as well. Though the exact cause of the disease is unknown, it is an inherited condition that can develop at any point in life.
Once the condition has been properly diagnosed by a health care provider, it is critical that the person completely avoid gluten. A gluten-free diet can heal small intestine damage in three to six months in children, but may take years to heal in adults. A gluten-free diet is critical because eating even small amounts of gluten can damage the small intestine.
Damage to the small intestine can lead to problems such as, but not limited to, anemia, osteoporosis, arthritis, bone or joint pain, fatigue and itchy skin rash.
Long-term damage aside, consuming gluten can cause a person with celiac disease to experience abdominal bloating, diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, gas and migraine headaches to name a few. Certainly, no one wants to be traveling or attempting to race with a physical illness brought about by the consumption of gluten.
Gluten Appears in Many Foods
One of the biggest challenges for people with celiac disease is that consuming a gluten-free diet involves more than avoiding bread. If you read the label on common items such as soups, salad dressings, sauces, condiments and spices you will find that many of them contain gluten.
Not knowing which products do and do not contain gluten becomes a challenge for traveling athletes. Eating in restaurants and social situations can be difficult and can lead to the celiac athlete feeling uncomfortable and isolated.