Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is characterized by an intolerance for gluten (a protein most commonly found in wheat, barley, and rye). Consuming gluten triggers an immune response that causes inflammation in the lower intestine that can permanently damage the intestinal lining. This damage results in malabsorption of essential nutrients and can lead to stomach pain, bloating, and diarrhea.
Left untreated, celiac disease can cause serious complications, starving the brain, nervous system, bones, liver, and other organs of necessary nutrients. Studies show that celiac patients also face a higher risk of other autoimmune diseases such as thyroid disease, and various forms of cancer, including melanoma, and it has also been linked to candida, osteoporosis and schizophrenia.
The exact genes that cause celiac disease have not been discovered. It is very common among people of Northern European descent, and is very prevalent in Ireland. Studies have shown that in Belfast one in 122 have the disease. Roughly one in 141 Americans suffer from the disease.
Unfortunately, only about ten percent of those are officially diagnosed. The Coeliac Society of Ireland (where celiac is sometimes spelled with an “oe”) estimates that for every person who is diagnosed, between five and ten more people have it, leading some to call it the silent disease.
Celiac disease can happen to anyone, though it is more common in those who are genetically predisposed. It is sometimes accompanied by:
• A family member with celiac
• Type 1 diabetes
• Down syndrome or Turner syndrome
• An autoimmune thyroid disease
• Sjogren’s syndrome, an autoimmune disorder that most commonly destroys the glands that produce tears and saliva
• Microscopic colitis, a disease characterized by chronic, watery diarrhea
In addition to the risk factors above, adults over 40 may consider testing if they experience the following:
• Chronic or intermittent diarrhea
• Unexplained gastrointestinal symptoms like nausea or vomiting
• Unexpected and sudden weight loss
• Unexplained iron deficiency anemia or other unspecified anemia
• Dermatitis herpetiformis, an itchy, blistering skin rash that sometimes accompanies celiac
More importantly, complications from untreated celiac can be severe and sometimes are the only indicator of the disease itself, as not all people with celiac disease exhibit symptoms. Complications include:
• Loss of calcium and bone density
• Infertility and/or miscarriage
• Lactose intolerance
• Cancer, especially intestinal lymphoma and small bowel cancer
Symptoms for celiac disease can vary by age, sometimes becoming less obvious as you get older, while the classic symptoms below are more commonly associated with celiac in children and young adults.
• Steatorrhea, marked by an excess of fat in the stool, causing it to appear oily and often float
• Abdominal Cramps
• Weight Loss
There is no cure for celiac disease – the only way to treat it is by eliminating gluten from the diet altogether. Most commonly found in wheat, gluten is also found in:
• Graham flour
Because of the ubiquity of these ingredients in most packaged foods, ingredient lists should be read before buying and consuming any foods like:
• Some candies
• Baked goods like bread, cake, pie, cookies
• Imitation meats or seafood
• Processed lunch meat
• Soups, salad dressing and sauces, including soy
• Self-basting poultry
The good news, however, is that you’ll probably eat healthier, because foods like the following are 100 percent okay:
• Fresh meat, fish, poultry that aren’t breaded, battered, or marinated
• Fruit, vegetables, and potatoes
• Most dairy
• Wine and distilled liquors, ciders, and spirits
• Corn and corn flour
• Rice and rice flour
As celiac disease becomes more widely known, there are also an increasing number of gluten-free substitutes for all those grain-containing foods you’d want to eat. Check out celiacdiseasecenter.columbia.edu, or the the 5,000-member-strong Coeliac Society of Ireland for more information, food lists, and cooking tips.