Celiac Disease: A Serious Health Concern & Not Just Gluten-Free Craze
Over the years, ‘Gluten-Free’ has become a trend, or rather, a craze. People who are not gluten-sensitive tend to use food and other products which are free from gluten. From gluten-free skincare products to shampoos and toothpaste, gluten-free marks are everywhere.
However, for those who are suffering from celiac disease, consuming gluten can lead to critical health complications. Since it is a rare condition, approximately 1% of the global population has it, most people are unaware of the best practices that can help avoid sickness or medical emergencies in those with gluten allergies or celiac disease.
In this blog, we will run through celiac disease, underlining the details that can help you to identify the condition, understand complications, and the treatment.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease, also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy orceliac sprue, is a genetic autoimmune disorder. For those with this condition, consuming food that contains gluten (a protein present in food) may damage the small intestine, leading to digestive disorders.
In other words, a person suffering from celiac disease reacts to gluten in the food as it affects and harms the villi (hair-like projections that absorb water and other nutrients from the food) present in the small intestine.
This keeps the sufferer deprived of the essential nutrients, which lead to poor immunity and other health concerns. Therefore, people who are intolerant to gluten are recommended to avoid barley, wheat, and other food that contains it.
Why People Develop Celiac Disease
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), celiac disease is one of the most common genetic disorders as it affects almost 1% of the population across the world. In addition, reports shared by the celiac research organization Beyond Celiac state that it’s believed about 83 percent of the people with celiac are either undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with the condition.
Though research has not been able to find the exact reason behind the condition, its causes include a genetic predisposition, consuming gluten-rich foods, and environmental conditions. It has also been found that people with celiac are often uninformed of their condition until a severe trigger happens in their lives, which in most cases is because of viral infection, childbirth, pregnancy, surgery, and emotional distress.
Who is at the Greatest Risk
Celiac disease can happen in people of any age group, irrespective of their race or place of origin. However, the disease appears to be more common in women and those who are Caucasian. The condition is also more likely to occur in children who have celiac parents or Dermatitis Herpetiformis, a condition in which people develop itchy skin rashes with a manifestation of celiac disease.
Other groups who are likely to have celiac disease include those suffering from Addison’s disease, an autoimmune thyroid disease, microscopic colitis, Type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome, Turner Syndrome, or rheumatoid arthritis.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
Identifying celiac conditions is difficult as it is very similar to other digestive disorders. However, some common symptoms of the disease include:
- For Infants and Young Children: (digestive) Abdominal pain, bloating, constipation, diarrhea, vomiting; (behavioral) feeling fretful, irritable, excessively dependent, or emotionally withdrawn. Also, failure to gain weight and damage to tooth enamel.
- Teenagers: Digestive symptoms, slowed growth, short height, delayed puberty, and hair loss.
- Adults: digestive symptoms (less than in children), fatigue, bone or joint pain, headaches, irritability, anxiety, depression, missed menstrual periods, osteoporosis, and iron deficiency (anemia).
- Other symptoms may include Dermatitis Herpetiformis (itchy skin rash), canker sores in the mouth, and lactose intolerance.
Complications from Celiac Disease
Though the initial stage of celiac starts with medical problems in the small intestine, a later stage may bring complications beyond digestive disorders. Lack of treatment or poor diagnosis may cause serious health complications, such as triggering a rare condition where the immune system starts to attack healthy cells in the body.
Also, the lack of nutrients due to bad absorption in the villi may cause many other complications such as malnourishment, delayed growth, etc. Therefore, it becomes necessary to consult a doctor from the start, before the autoimmune disorder gets worse. In adults, Type 1 Diabetes and thyroid patients need to be more careful and seek necessary medical assistance if they have symptoms.
Celiac Disease May Not Have Similar Symptoms
Celiac disease symptoms vary from person to person depending on certain factors. The impact of the celiac disease depends on the age when a person starts eating gluten, the damage they made to the small intestine with respect to their age, length of breastfeeding as a baby, and much more. Even if you do not have any symptoms at an early age, there are always chances of complications over time.
How Celiac Disease is Diagnosed
Since celiac disease shares its symptoms with other digestive disorders, it cannot be diagnosed only by referring to the symptoms. For instance, some people have gluten sensitivity and tend to have abdominal discomfort without any damage to the small intestine. People who are allergic to some gluten-containing food, like barley or wheat, may feel have heavy breathing or itchy eyes but not damage to the small intestine.
Therefore, to identify celiac disease, your physician would recommend two serologic blood tests. These tests are done to identify the HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes along with human leukocyte antigens (HLA) as these have the potential to overcome the celiac disease. In some circumstances, this test may also be performed using saliva or a cheek swab. If the results are positive, you may need to get an endoscopy where a camera is inserted inside your body to track the intestinal tract. In certain cases, medical practitioners even take small tissues samples from the intestine to check the sample of villi for any damage.
If tests identified dermatitis herpetiformis, a skin biopsy is generally recommended. If you have non-celiac gluten-sensitivity, your doctor may recommend similar precautions and treatments to control the condition.
Prevention and Treatment
There is no cure or treatment for celiac disease. The only way to prevent damage is to manage the symptoms through a gluten-free diet. It not only helps your intestine heal but also prevents further damage.
Celiac patients should always check labels before eating and preparing food. If you visit a restaurant or your relatives, make sure to speak to them and ask for gluten-free options.
What Makes a Gluten-Free Diet?
First, you must understand that a gluten-free diet is not just about preventing the intake of barley, rye, and wheat. If you suffer from celiac disease, you need to avoid anything that contains gluten. These include a variety of products such as durum, graham flour, faro, and spelt, plus products you wouldn’t think would have gluten might have some, including salad dressing, multi-vitamins, or candy and chocolate bars.
Doctors often recommend people with severe conditions to be extra cautious about their food habits. For instance, oats, being gluten-free food, could trigger an allergic reaction since it contains ‘avenin protein’ that can affect the intestine.
Here is a brief list of some Do’s and Don’ts for adopting a healthy gluten-free lifestyle.
Don’ts of Gluten-Free Diet:
- Bread and pastries
- Canned soups
- Cereals, grains, and pasta
- Candy bars
- Instant coffee
- Processed or canned meats; luncheon meats
- Salad dressings, sauces, and gravies
Make sure you always check the ingredients. Even for ice-creams and pickles.
You should also check products that use gluten as a binder, such as lipstick, medication, vitamin supplements, toothpaste, and mouthwash. Gluten on the skin of very sensitive people can be problematic, plus can lead to contamination of food, make sure you check all products you use routinely to avoid any complications.
Do’s of Gluten-Free Diet:
- Beans, legumes, and nuts
- Beef, eggs, and poultry
- Fish and seafood
- Fruits and vegetables
- Gluten-free grains, such as chia, corn, flax, millet, potato, soy, sorghum, tapioca, teff, quinoa, and yucca
- Foods that are labeled “gluten-free”
- Be cautious of seasonings and additives
Sticking to the above food guidelines could help you improve your health. In certain cases, doctors may even recommend certain supplements to help you meet the nutrients requirements of the body. These can be calcium, fiber, iron, magnesium, niacin, or vitamin D.
Creating a Healthy Lifestyle with Celiac Disease
Dealing with celiac disease can be challenging. Once you realize that you need to adopt a gluten-free lifestyle, it takes time to get familiar with habits like reading food labels, asking for gluten-free food at restaurants, and finding alternatives for your favorite foods and products. However, the more you become familiar with the condition, the better you can shape your lifestyle habits. And yes, you can enjoy your life and many delicious foods even when you are a celiac. Spend some time exploring gluten-free practices and making gluten-free recipes, and you’ll get there!
Good luck and take care!