According to new research from the Mayo Clinic, Celiac Disease affects approximately 1 in 100 people. When individuals with Celiac Disease consume gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, the absorptive surface of the small intestine is damaged. This greatly decreases the body’s ability to absorb nutrients causing vitamin and mineral deficiencies that deprive the brain, nervous system, bones and other organs of essential nourishment. Continued exposure to gluten creates an increased risk for developing secondary diseases and disorders including certain types of cancer. The development of Celiac Disease involves a combination of genetic, environmental and immunological factors. It can occur at any age and may be triggered by a gastrointestinal or viral infection, severe stress, surgery, pregnancy or another life-changing event.
Unfortunately, there are no typical signs and symptoms of Celiac Disease. According to the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness:
“There are more than 300 symptoms of celiac disease, and symptoms may vary amongst different people. One person might have symptoms of diarrhea and abdominal pain, while another person has irritability or depression. Some patients develop celiac symptoms early in life, while others feel healthy far into adulthood. Some people with celiac disease may not show any symptoms. These differences can make celiac diagnosis extremely difficult resulting in 95% of celiacs undiagnosed or misdiagnosed with other conditions. Left untreated, people with celiac disease can develop further complications such as other autoimmune diseases, osteoporosis, thyroid disease, and cancer.”
Some of the most common symptoms, which may occur singly or in combination, include:
• Bloating & Gas
• Itchy Skin Rash
• Pale Mouth Sores
• Joint Pain
• Delayed Growth
• Poor Weight Gain
• Thin Bones
• Discolored Teeth
The diagnosis of Celiac Disease is often very difficult because the broad range of symptoms that vary from mild to severe (or none at all) often mimic those of other diseases including irritable bowel syndrome, crohn’s disease, ulcerative colitis, lactose intolerance, fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome and depression.
The average time frame for diagnosis of Celiac Disease from the onset of symptoms in Canada is 10 years in comparison to Italy where it is 3 weeks. The difference? In Italy all children are screened by age 6 and Italians of any age are tested for the disease as soon as they show symptoms. This highlights the need for increased awareness of Celiac Disease in North America, both among physicians and the general public. Some studies have suggested that for every person who has been diagnosed with Celiac Disease, there are likely 30 who have it but aren’t diagnosed. I’m looking forward to the day when doctors screen for Celiac Disease the way they do for cholesterol and blood pressure!
To gain a proper diagnosis of Celiac Disease the first step is to request the panel of blood tests from your physician or you can purchase the Celiac Home Test which is available online and in some pharmacies. If the blood tests and/or symptoms indicate Celiac Disease your physician may suggest a biopsy of the lining of the small intestine to confirm the diagnosis.
**It is very important to continue eating a normal, gluten-containing diet before being tested for celiac or you may not receive an accurate diagnosis.
Celiac Disease can be effectively treated and controlled with a life-long adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. Once a person with Celiac Disease stops eating gluten, symptoms are often alleviated and the small intestine gradually heals over time. It is important to note that eating any gluten, no matter how small the amount, can damage the intestine. This is true for anyone with the disease, including people who do not have noticeable symptoms. It is essential to consult with a nutritionist with expertise in Celiac Disease and the gluten-free diet for nutritional assessment, education, meal planning and assistance with social and emotional adaptation to the new gluten-free lifestyle. Joining a local gluten-free support group such as LGFC and the Canadian Celiac Association for ongoing education and support is highly recommended.