It’s estimated that about 2 million Americans have celiac disease, yet it frequently goes undiagnosed. Untreated, it results in damage to the lining of the small intestine, yet symptoms are not always gastrointestinal.
Most of the time our immune system works for us, identifying and killing foreign invaders such as harmful bacteria and viruses to protect us against illness. Other times the immune system works against us, misidentifying something that is actually helpful and triggering an immune response against it. This is what happens with celiac disease.
Gluten, the “foreign invader” involved in celiac disease, is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and in an amazing variety of processed foods, vitamins, medicines… even in everyday items such as the adhesive on stamps and envelopes. To prevent the body from being damaged by this perceived enemy, the immune system attacks the villi, tiny finger like protrusions in the small intestine that allow gluten and other nutrients to be absorbed into the bloodstream. The resulting condition is called celiac disease, considered to be an autoimmune disorder because the body mistakenly attacks itself. Without healthy villi in the small intestine, those suffering from celiac disease become malnourished and fatigued, regardless of the amount of food eaten.
Treatment of celiac disease is a challenge, because celiac sufferers must avoid all foods and products containing gluten.
There are readily available gluten-free alternatives for the most obvious sources of gluten – you can get gluten-free pasta, bread, crackers, bagels, and pizza, for example. And you can count on fresh fruits, vegetables,meat and fish without breading or sauce to be gluten-free. But for packaged and processed foods, you have to become skilled at reading labels and knowing what to look for.
People with celiac disease typically notice improvement in symptoms within days of starting a gluten-free diet, as intestinal damage begins to heal and villi are once again able to absorb nutrients from food. A gluten-free diet is a life long commitment, but for better health and symptom-free living, it’s well worth the effort.
Celiac Disease is challenging to diagnose because many of its symptoms, some of which are listed below, are similar to those of other conditions.
- Recurring bloating, gas, or abdominal pain
- Chronic diarrhea or constipation, or both
- Unexplained weight loss or weight gain
- Fatigue,weakness or lack of energy
- Pale, foul-smelling or fatty stool
- Infertility, recurrent miscarriage
- Failure to thrive (in infants); delayed growth or onset of puberty
- Behavior changes, depression, irritability
- Itchy skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis
- Canker sores inside the mouth
- Tooth discoloration or loss of enamel
Source: National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases
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Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor