In recent decades celiac disease has emerged from a rare disorder to a common auto-immune disease affecting at least 1 percent of people in North America, Europe and Australia. However, according to specialists I interviewed for an article in the current issue of Gluten-Free Living, the vast majority of people with celiac disease don’t know they have it.
Celiac disease involves an immune response to gluten protein in wheat, barley and rye. Antibodies attack and damage the patient’s own intestinal tissue. Common symptoms include stomach ache, diarrhea or constipation, fatigue and, in children, failure to thrive. However, it sometimes presents unusual and confusing symptoms. A few patients experience life-threatening conditions. In general it has serious long-term health impacts such as decreased bone density and increased risk of certain cancers.
So far the only known treatment is a life-long gluten-free diet.
I recently posted here about what scientific research is doing to find a cause and a drug treatment for celiac disease, as well as the the popularity of the gluten-free diet.
It is interesting to note that while the availability of gluten-free products has done a lot to promote awareness of celiac disease, they also make it easy for people to adopt a gluten-free diet without diagnosis. Specialists I interviewed for the article do not recommend doing so without a doctor’s advice. Celiac disease has important health implications that should receive appropriate medical follow-up. Adoption of a gluten-free diet makes diagnosis impossible with currently approved tests. And for people who do not have celiac disease, the diet is not necessarily healthier.
So the gluten-free diet can contribute to under-diagnosis. Adding to the confusion, physicians may not suspect celiac disease for various reasons: they may be unaware that it can be associated with other health issues such as type 1 diabetes, that it is not merely a childhood disease, but can manifest during adulthood, and that it affects men as often as women.
Anyone who experiences or suspects an adverse reaction to wheat and other grains or has a family history of celiac disease should consult a doctor. For more information, check out the article in Gluten-Free Living.