Celiac Disease

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About Celiac Disease


Celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder, is increasingly common in the United States; in fact it is practically epidemic. Many sufferers though are completely unaware that they even have this dreadful illness. In fact, celiac can go undiagnosed for years, while a person quietly suffers with their symptoms.

In many countries around the world, particularly those where the people are of European descent, celiac disease occurs in about 1% of the population. Until recently the numbers reported in the United States were much lower, estimated at only about 1 in every 4500 people. Recent studies though have shown that in fact this disease is becoming more widespread in the United States, and likely is present in about 1 out of every 130 individuals. As many as 97% of individuals with celiac remain undiagnosed, which is a terrible tragedy, as the disease comes with a greatly increased mortality rate when undiagnosed (as much as 2.5 times greater risk of death than the general population).

What is Celiac Disease?

Now that it is clear that celiac disease is a fairly common illness being experienced by millions of Americans, we need to understand exactly what this disease is. Celiac, also known as non-tropical sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is an autoimmune disorder. The disease results when an individual's body is unable to process gluten, a storage protein found in wheat, rye, barley, kamut, spelt and triticale. More precisely, gluten is an elastic protein also know as a prolamine. It has two component proteins: gliadins and glutenins. When one is a celiac, his or her body treats gluten like a toxin, and in the process of attacking the gluten “invader,” the small intestine is assaulted and the villi of the small intestine are rendered incapable of carrying on their critical functions. The more damaged the small intestine becomes, the less able it is to absorb nutrients properly.

Damage to the small intestine and the resultant inability to absorb nutrients creates significant problems for an individual. The person will have lowered immunity and suffer more often from colds and fatigue. The person is likely to experience increased anxiety, numbness and tingling in the extremities, even skin conditions or hair loss. As the level of damage intensifies when prolonged or continued exposure to gluten occurs, there is increased risk of contracting diseases such as type one diabetes, thyroid disease, and cancer. Essential nutrients such as calcium, iron, or Vitamin B, if not absorbed sufficiently, lead to complications of celiac such as anemia, brittle bones, and infertility.

Who Gets this Disease?

Celiac disease was once thought to be a childhood disease, but it is now just as commonly diagnosed in adults over age 30 as it is in infants and children. Celiac has a genetic component and your chances of having it are greatly increased if an immediate family member suffers with the disease. Celiac may be asymptomatic for years, but triggers like stress or illness may precipitate an episode of celiac-induced symptoms.

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How is Celiac Diagnosed?

Celiac disease is often diagnosed on the basis of symptomology and blood tests. Some symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • headaches
  • chronic diarrhea
  • fatigue
  • stomach cramps
  • bloating
  • irritability
  • weight loss or gain
  • excessive flatulence

Celiac is more definitively diagnosed by biopsy of the small intestine. The symptoms of celiac disease mimic those of other illnesses, including irritable bowel syndrome, which is part of the reason it is so often undetected for a long period of time. The fact that many doctors are unaware that this is no longer simply a child's illness also contributes to the low levels of detection.

While it is not solely a childhood disease, certainly there are many instances in which infants and children are diagnosed with celiac. Criteria for diagnosing on the basis of symptoms is slightly different for children than those used more commonly for adults. Infants and children who suffer from celiac are likely to have delayed growth or failure to thrive, in addition to complaints such as diarrhea, vomiting and stomach pain. Infants will often first exhibit symptoms of celiac within weeks of first trying solid foods, as many infant cereals and foods contain gluten. Some infant formulas also contain gluten and may cause severe problems.

Treating Celiac Disease


Once celiac disease has been diagnosed a patient will need to make significant changes in his or her life to help combat the illness. The disease has no cure, but it is completely treatable. The only treatment is to eliminate gluten from the diet as completely as possible. Some individuals will have a return of negative symptoms almost immediately upon consuming any gluten at all. Within a few weeks of starting a gluten-free diet the individual should be experiencing relief from their celiac related symptoms.

The first foods to be eliminated are those directly containing gluten, which includes wheat, barley, rye, triticale, spelt and kamut. Giving up staples like soft white bread, pasta or favorite barley-based alcohols (like beer) is challenging enough, but unfortunately it is just the beginning of a gluten-free diet. Gluten proteins contaminate many packaged foods and may affect almost anything a person wants to eat at a restaurant. Foods like soups, luncheon meats, sausages, and yogurt or sour cream may have had gluten added to them for thickening. Favorites like french fries or even chocolate bars may contain gluten or be contaminated due to contact with other gluten containing products. Malt vinegar is another no-no, as are many herbal teas, sauces, and condiments. A person must even be wary of the ingredients in prescription medication, as gluten is sometimes a component.

The healthiest option for celiac sufferers is to cook and bake with fresh ingredients in their own homes, where avoidance of gluten is much more easily achieved. Turkey sandwich meat from the grocery story may contain gluten, but a turkey cooked in your own oven can be sliced for sandwiches with no worries about suffering gluten-induced pain and symptoms afterward. Bread and pizza do not have to be completely eliminated from the diet if you are willing to make your own with alternative flours. Safe options for baking include rice, corn, or potato flour. Homemade cornbread is a delicious alternative to wheat and pizza dough made from rice flour and amaranth can be a wonderful change from more traditional recipes.

There are also an increasing number of manufacturers coming out with gluten-free product lines, although cooking at home will always remain the safest choice. Here are a few gluten-free options:

Arrowhead Mills gluten-free all purpose baking mix
Arrowhead Mills gluten-free pancake mix
Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free bread mix
Gluten-free Pantry’s chocolate brownie mix
Ian’s wheat-free/gluten-free chicken nuggets

As celiac disease diagnoses have risen and as they continue to increase, the internet thankfully explodes with websites sharing wonderful gluten-free recipes and ideas to assist those with finding a new path to wheat-free eating.

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Living with Celiac

After being diagnosed with celiac disease, a person will have to live on a gluten-free diet for the rest of his or her life. With time and practice it will become second-nature to read all labels and question friends and family on their meal preparations. As one becomes more knowledgeable about recipes and meal preparation, the occasional restaurant outing and holiday meals with relatives will become manageable and you will be able to live a normal life. Most importantly, the proper treatment of celiac disease will reduce the inherent health risks and allow an individual to avoid the many negative effects that undiagnosed celiac sufferers will continue to experience. Imagine; no more stomach cramping, nausea, diarrhea, or excessive flatulence. A gluten-free diet will allow people who have celiac disease to truly live their lives and enjoy food again.

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