The terms “gluten sensitivity” or “gluten-free diet” are thrown around often these days, and with good reason.

More and more people are reacting poorly to gluten — that is, they have a bad immune response after eating food that contains gluten. Gluten sensitivities are nothing new; they’re just better understood and, as a result, are being diagnosed more. It’s estimated that 1 percent of the population suffers from a gluten sensitivity or intolerance, although almost all experts are in agreement that this problem is hugely underdiagnosed.

Do you feel sleepy, heavy and bloated after a big plate of spaghetti? There’s a chance you may have a gluten sensitivity, and going gluten-free with your diet might be the only way to overcome this.Here’s a look at what gluten is, where it’s found, signs you may have a sensitivity, and how to manage it by going gluten-free.

What Is Gluten?

To set the record straight, gluten isn’t a bad thing; it’s simply a composite of two proteins (gliadin and glutenin). In nature, it’s found most commonly in field grains, such as wheat, barley, and rye. It is considered a useful source of protein, whether in its natural form or used as an additive in the food-manufacturing process. Most recently, gluten has been used as a stabilizing agent in a myriad of foods, such as ketchup and ice cream. Don’t always expect to see it on an ingredients list, however. If it’s used in the manufacturing process, it’s often not mentioned on the label of the product.

What is Gluten Sensitivity?

Most people can consume and digest gluten with no adverse effects, but a growing percentage of the population is sensitive to the protein and should be going on a gluten-free diet. These people may have mild sensitivities or have celiac disease — a small-intestine disorder relating to the autoimmune system. After a sufferer of this disease eats a product containing gluten, an inflammation of the bowel tissue will occur. After prolonged inflammations, the person will experience flattening of the small intestine’s lining, leading to problems with absorbing the nutrients in food. This is when going gluten-free is a necessity for better living.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms?

People with gluten sensitivities and celiac disease can display a multitude of symptoms, which is why this health problem is so underdiagnosed. Symptoms can include everything from constipation to diarrhea, and bowel pain and cramps are often common. Many people with celiac disease are often misdiagnosed as having irritable bowel syndrome as the symptoms are similar. Chronic fatigue is perhaps the most common sign, and it makes sense since you’re not absorbing enough nutrients to keep your body running at its peak, so you feel worn down. Other symptoms include weight loss and anemia.

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What Can Gluten Sensitivity Lead to?

If you suffer from gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, don’t panic; you’re not going to die from it, but if left untreated, it can lead to further complications down the road. Those with celiac disease are at a greater risk of developing bowel lymphoma and adenocarcinoma, but managing the disease will negate that extra risk. A risk of developing diabetes and osteoporosis are also heightened if the disease is left untreated.

How Do I Get Diagnosed?

Because your doctor can easily mistake the symptoms of gluten intolerance for something else, it’s best to get tested. Blood and stool tests are common, and can be arranged through your physician or through a private laboratory. A biopsy of the bowel is another common (and almost certain) method of testing. If the test comes back positive, you may be taken aback. Remember, though, that the only way to deal with a health problem is by making certain it exists in the first place.

How Can I Go on a Gluten-Free Diet?

Going gluten-free with your diet may seem like a tall task, but remember that modifying what you eat will do more than give you better energy — it will make you healthier. There’s no magic pill that will allow you to enjoy wheat pasta and other products again, but thankfully, there are a number of alternatives on the market. And with more people being diagnosed every week, it may not be long before gluten-free products have their own section in the supermarket. (Think of the organic section that didn’t exist a decade ago.)

Type “gluten-free diet” into any online search engine and you’ll come up with scores of foods to avoid — and foods you can still enjoy. Typically, the only place you’ll find gluten in traditional, non-prepared foods is anywhere you’d find flour. So, you’ll still be able to continue to enjoy all your favorite meats, starches like potatoes and rice, and fruits and vegetables. You will, however, have to cut out some pastas, desserts and breads.

Thankfully, many grocery stores carry gluten-free variations of these products, which are made using a combination of rice, arrowroot and tapioca flours. Think of a traditional Thanksgiving dinner — you’ll be able to eat everything on the menu except for the stuffing, as it’s likely made with bread containing wheat flour. Everything else is fair game.

Giving Up Gluten

If you find out you have a gluten sensitivity or celiac disease, get in the habit of reading ingredient lists on food products. Changing your diet for the better will give you more energy, get rid of the nasty symptoms you may have been experiencing, and most important, allow your bowel to begin healing.