Could You Have Celiac Disease?

According to a recent study by the Mayo Clinic, celiac disease, a chronic intestinal disorder caused by a hypersensitivity to gluten proteins found in wheat, rye, barley and possibility oat products, is four times more common today than it was 50 years ago. Although the reasons for the increase are unknown, the Mayo researchers speculated that changes in the environment from the way wheat is grown and processed to reductions in exposure to germs and infections at an early age-also known as the Hygiene Hypothesis-may be contributing factors to the increasing number of cases of celiac disease (CD).

While it's estimated that one in 133 Americans have CD, making it one of the most common causes of chronic inflammation of the digestive system, the disorder often goes undiagnosed and, as a result, is left untreated. In other cases, the gastrointestinal problems associated with CD, such as stomachaches and diarrhea, are often blamed on other common ailments such as food allergies. As a result, they end up being misdiagnosed. However, if left untreated, CD sufferers have a four-fold increased risk of earlier death than treated patients, according to the Mayo study.

What to Look For

While healthy people have no problem digesting gluten-containing foods, in CD sufferers the immune system is abnormally activated by gluten, which triggers an inflammation response in the small intestine. Eventually, this autoimmune response results in the partial or complete flattening of the villi, the tiny hair-like projections that absorb nutrients from foods. Left untreated, the malabsorption of nutrients can result in a constellation of maladies from skin rashes, chronic fatigue and osteoporosis to infertility and lymphoma.

Some classic symptoms of celiac disease include chronic diarrhea or constipation, abdominal pain, gas and bloating. But other symptoms of CD may occur in places other than the digestive tract and can include:

  • Loss of appetite
  • Fatigue
  • Anemia
  • Bone and joint pain
  • Weight loss
  • Irritability
  • Depression
  • Skin rash

If you suspect you may have celiac disease, talk to your doctor about your symptoms. Based on your symptoms and family history-17 percent of celiac patients have an immediate family member with the disease-he or she may prescribe a blood test or a biopsy of the intestinal lining to accurately diagnose CD.

The only available treatment today for celiac disease is a completely gluten-free diet, which means the elimination of wheat, rye, barley and possibly oat grains from your diet. Instead, stick to a diet of fresh meats, fish and poultry, fruits and vegetables, rice, potatoes and gluten-free flours such as rice, soy, corn and potato.