What To Do If Someone With Celiac Disease Eats Gluten

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What should you do if yourself or someone you know with celiac disease eats gluten? If you have celiac disease or know someone who has it, you know it can be challenging to go gluten-free. It requires one to educate themselves on foods that contain gluten, watch for hidden gluten in food products and medications, and give up some foods that they may enjoy. Because of this, CDHF always recommends working with a registered dietitian to get support and navigate through going completely gluten-free.

We understand things like grocery shopping or going out to eat at a restaurant can be tough! When going out to eat, they have to be incredibly careful because foods that have been in contact with gluten-containing foods are cross-contaminated and can cause a problem.

However, we all make mistakes and have slip ups. There are times that you or someone you know accidentally consumes gluten. So what should you do if this happens? Keep reading!

Let’s go over exactly what happens in the body when someone who is celiac eats gluten.

To start, here are some facts about celiac disease that you may or may not know:

  • Celiac disease is considered an autoimmune disorder because it results in the body damaging its own tissues.
  • Celiac disease is the only autoimmune disease in which the trigger is known.
  • Celiac disease is not a food allergy.
    • If you have the disease, your body’s response to gluten differs from the immune response caused by a food allergy.
  • Celiac disease is different from a gluten sensitivity.
    • Also known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity, gluten sensitivity is not a condition that is currently well defined. It is neither an autoimmune reaction like celiac disease or an allergic reaction in which the immune system produces antibodies.

Unfortunately at this time autoimmune diseases cannot be cured.  The only way to prevent further damage to the digestive tract is to avoid gluten entirely. Gluten is a type of protein found in certain grains including wheat, barley, and rye.

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 someone with celiac disease consumes gluten, the immune system recognizes it as a foreign invader and begins producing antibodies to fight it. Unfortunately, healthy cells are also damaged in the process – particularly the villi lining the small intestine. Villi are tiny finger like projections that increase the surface area through which nutrients can be absorbed from food passing through the small intestine. When they are damaged 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 diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, bloating and gas, nausea and vomiting, constipation, abdominal pain, bone or joint pain, anemia, peripheral neuropathy, and depression or anxiety.

So what should you do if you or someone you know with celiac disease eats gluten?

If you are celiac, eating gluten is no fun at all. Here are some tips that might be helpful for recovery following a gluten exposure:

  1. Get some rest. Your best course of remedy is to take it easy. Stressing about what you ate or what happened will not help. So try not to worry – we all make mistakes. Try to take a few days off of school or work while experiencing the physical side effects.
  2. Practice self-compassion. A key part of practicing self-compassion is being kind to yourself, trying to replace negative thoughts with more positive ones. Simply saying “You are not dumb for accidentally getting poisoned. You do your best on a daily basis to eat a nutritious gluten-free diet, and sometimes accidents just happen.” Read more about self-compassion here.
  3. Drink plenty of water. Staying hydrated is super important, especially if you experience diarrhea, and extra fluids will help flush your system as well. In addition to drinking regular water, If diarrhea is severe, you may need to replace electrolytes. Try a sports drink low in sugar or homemade bone broth.
  4. Speak with your registered dietitian or general practitioner. Taking probiotics, some supplements, or working on a specific health plan for you may be beneficial in getting you feeling better sooner. It’s important to talk to your registered dietitian or doctor to discuss the right health plan specifically for YOU.

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:

  • Check for the GFCP (Gluten Free Certification Program) certified stamp when looking at food labels. This stamp signifies that the products come from a GFCP (Gluten Free Certification Program) certified manufacturing facility and have successfully completed and passed a GFCP facility audit. It’s important to note that there are very different labeling laws between Canada and the US. Click here for food labelling guidelines for those with Celiac Disease in Canada.
  • Keep a gluten free kitchen. If you have a celiac in your home co-existing with a gluten-eater, it’s very important that they have their own condiments, cutting boards, cutlery, frying pans, etc. Anything that could potentially be cross-contaminated with gluten should be kept in a separate place in the fridge and or kitchen, and labeled accordingly to avoid any confusion. Learn more here.
  • Avoid cross-contamination by washing dishes in the dishwasher.  The dishwasher is the best bet for cleaning but hand washing can also be OK. If you are sharing a space with someone who is not gluten-free, try using a bit of bleach with hand washing. You can even do this in the dishwasher but usually the heat and pressure of the dishwasher are adequate.
  • Have a solid recipe plan. We’ve scoured the internet and put together a seven day diet plan featuring some amazing gluten free recipes from some of the top gluten free gurus to help ease you into your new lifestyle! See here.
  • 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. Be your own best advocate! In addition to finding a restaurant with gluten free options, talk to your server and to the manager about how their kitchen specifically avoids cross contamination.

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 while working with a registered dietitian to help you through the process of going completely gluten-free and the more careful you are, the less likely it is to happen. Check out our handy chart of food groups and some common foods in each category that are safe, foods you need to check, and foods that must be avoided if you have celiac disease.