The prevalence of celiac disease has soared in recent years, yet many are mystified as to what the disease is and how it’s treated. Let’s take a closer look at the disease and how to combat it.
Celiac disease is a lifelong autoimmune disorder that affects nearly 1% of the U.S. population. People with celiac disease have an allergy to gluten, a protein found in many common grains such as wheat, barley and rye. While many are aware that gluten is present in breads and pastas, gluten can also turn up in unexpected places, like certain brands of chocolate, deli meats, soy sauce, vitamins and even some kinds of toothpaste.
People who suffer from celiac disease can be so sensitive to gluten that consuming even a small amount can make them sick. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten triggers an immune response in your small intestine. Over time, this reaction produces inflammation that damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents absorption of some nutrients.
Left untreated, the intestinal damage can lead to a host of health problems ranging from bloating and diarrhea to osteoporosis, anemia and eventually a lack of vital nourishment to your brain, nervous system, bones, liver and other organs.
Although the classic signs are diarrhea and weight loss, most adults experience few or no digestive signs or symptoms. Only about one-third of people diagnosed with celiac disease experience diarrhea; about half have weight loss; and 20% have constipation. Adults with celiac disease will develop problems such as anemia, fatigue, osteoporosis, or arthritis. Other signs and symptoms of the disease include: headaches, joint pain, tingling numbness in hands and feet, and acid reflux and heartburn. Since this disease affects people differently, it’s imperative to visit your doctor if you have a family history of the disease or suspect that you might have it.
There’s no cure for celiac disease — but following a strict gluten-free diet is essential to help manage symptoms and promote intestinal healing.
Replacing foods that contain gluten with healthy gluten-free whole grains, like quinoa and wild rice, will reduce celiac complications. Always carefully read all labels for additives that may contain gluten. Packaged foods should be avoided unless they’re labeled as gluten-free or have no gluten-containing ingredients. Look for wheat or wheat products added to foods such as ice cream, salad dressing, candy, canned and frozen soups and vegetables, and other processed foods.
Many foods are allowed in a gluten-free diet, including:
- Fresh meats, fish and poultry that aren’t breaded, batter-coated or marinated
- Most dairy products
- Gluten-free flours (rice, soy, corn, potato, bean)
- Wine and distilled liquors, ciders and spirits
Once gluten is removed from the diet, inflammation in the small intestine generally begins to lessen — usually within several weeks. Complete healing and regrowth of the villi (hair-like projections that cover the lining of the small intestine) may take several months to several years. If you accidentally eat a product that contains gluten, you may experience abdominal pain and diarrhea. Some people experience no signs or symptoms after eating gluten, but this doesn’t mean it’s not harmful. Even trace amounts of gluten in your diet can be damaging, whether or not they cause signs or symptoms.
Although it takes discipline and commitment, with the help of your primary care provider, you can learn to maintain a balanced diet and live a healthy life with celiac disease.
Resources and additional information:
Celiac Disease Foundation www.celiac.org
NIH/National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse (NDDIC): www.digestive.niddk.nih.gov