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10 Things You Should Know About Celiac Disease
by James McCarthy
Everybody can benefit from healthy eating. The food we ingest ultimately gives us nutrients. It gives us energy and helps us grow, think, and ultimately thrive as human beings. While everybody’s dietary choices affect their bodies’ performance to a certain degree, few people have to worry that eating certain common foods will cause the body to attack itself. This is exactly what happens in patients with Celiac Disease. Here are ten things you should know about Celiac Disease to help you recognize it and understand what it does to the body.
1. Celiac Disease is triggered when people with the disorder eat gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and many products derived from these. This includes pasta, bread, beer, baked goods, anything containing flour, and countless other common foods (1). Gluten may also be found in less obvious sources such as certain medicines or vitamins (2).
2. Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder. When a patient eats gluten, his immune system reacts by damaging the villi in the small intestine. Villi are tiny projections in the intestine that are largely responsible for the absorption of nutrients during digestion. As a result, individuals with untreated Celiac cannot properly absorb the nutrients in the food they eat, leading to other problems (3).
3. Celiac Disease is not the same thing as a gluten allergy. The difference is the way the body responds to exposure of gluten. Since Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder, ingestion of gluten causes the body to attack its normal intestinal tissue, which causes further complications with absorption of nutrients. In those with a gluten allergy or gluten sensitivity, gluten exposure may cause an allergic reaction (such as a rash or diarrhea), but without the added complications that Celiac patients experience (4).
4. Improper absorption of nutrients due to Celiac Disease can have damaging consequences. These consequences may be especially severe if the Celiac patient remains untreated. They include prolonged anemia, arthritis, osteoporosis, seizures, lack of menstruation and miscarriage in females, dermatitis herpetiformis (a skin rash), liver disease, and intestinal cancer (2).
5. The cause of Celiac Disease is still relatively unknown. However, there is definitely an observable trend in families, so there is likely a genetic or biological predisposition to developing the disorder. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, between five and fifteen percent of people who have a parent or sibling with Celiac Disease will develop the disorder. Furthermore, if the patient is a monozygotic or identical twin, there is a 70 percent chance that the other twin will also have Celiac Disease. In addition, individuals who have family members with a different autoimmune disorder have an increased risk of developing Celiac (3).
6. The symptoms of Celiac Disease are extremely varied and not always gastrointestinal problems. For this reason, it may be hard to recognize symptoms and get tested immediately. In children, however, gastrointestinal symptoms are the most common and include chronic diarrhea, vomiting, loss of weight, constipation, pale or fatty bowel movements, and stomach pains. Adults, on the other hand, experience fewer abdominal symptoms. In addition to the aforementioned symptoms related to nutritional deficiencies (anemia, osteoporosis, etc.), adults may experience fatigue, bone and joint pains, depression, anxiety, numbness in fingers and toes, canker sores, and infertility (2).
7. Currently, the only treatment available to patients with Celiac Disease is the removal of gluten from their diet. Because even a small amount of gluten can trigger an autoimmune response in the body, it must be permanently removed from the diet to ensure that the intestine can heal itself. Gluten may be found in many unlikely sources, so it is important that individuals read food labels carefully and contact manufacturers if there are any uncertainties. Strict adherence minimizes the chance that later complications due to Celiac Disease will arise (3).
8. Several diagnostic tests are used to determine if you have Celiac Disease, some better than others. One method involves testing the blood for specific antibodies, some of which are “anti-gluten” and others that are “anti-self.” Blood tests are most reliable before the patient starts a gluten-free diet. However, blood tests still may be unreliable or inconsistent. For this reason, the best test is a biopsy of the small intestine. This allows doctors to look directly at the tissue to see if damage has occurred (4).
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9. Other autoimmune disorders are common in people with Celiac Disease. These diseases include “type I diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, autoimmune liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Addison’s disease (a condition in which the glands that produce critical hormones are damaged), and Sjögren’s syndrome (a condition in which the glands that produce tears and saliva are destroyed).” The reason for this is likely genetic (2).
10. Celiac Disease was previously thought to be rare, but now people are being diagnosed more frequently. Currently, about 1 in 133 people in the United States are diagnosed with the disease (2). Interestingly, diagnoses in the US take much longer when compared to other countries. The difference is shocking. “In Italy, the time between when symptoms begin and the disease is diagnosed is usually only 2 to 3 weeks. In the United States, the time between the first symptoms and diagnosis averages about 10 years” (5). However, with more awareness about Celiac Disease in the US, these differences will be minimized.
1. Celiac Disease: Retrieved from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/celiac-disease/DS00319
2. Celiac Disease: Retrieved from http://digestive.niddk.nih.gov/ddiseases/pubs/celiac/
3. Celiac Disease: Retrieved from http://www.celiac.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=9
4. Retrieved from http://americanceliac.org/
5. Libonati, C. J., & Capuzzi, D. M. (2007). Recognizing celiac disease: Signs, symptoms,
associated disorders & complications. Fort Washington, PA: Gluten Free Works