If you’ve strolled through your supermarket bakery aisle recently, you may have noticed the many gluten-free products for sale. Some supermarkets have even devoted special sections entirely to gluten-free foods. A recent Mayo Clinic study noted that almost two million Americans are currently on a gluten-free diet, which seems to account for the popularity of grain-free products. Is this a new fad? Not for those with celiac disease. For this population, eating gluten-free food is more than a diet or a trend; it’s a way of life.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the small intestine. Individuals with celiac disease experience a reaction to proteins found in common grains such as wheat, barley or rye, which causes inflammation in the lining of the small bowel. Over time, the small intestine begins to lose the ability to properly absorb nutrients in food, leading to minor symptoms such as weight loss, bloating, and abdominal discomfort as well as major complications such as malnutrition, loss of bone density and even lymphoma. The only known cure for celiac disease is a life-long gluten-free diet.
How common is celiac disease?
According to a 2012 study by the National Institutes of Health (in partnership with the Mayo Clinic), approximately 1.8 million Americans (or 1-3% of the US population) suffer from celiac disease. Of those, over 75% of them do not know they have it. Part of the problem is that symptoms can vary from person to person, and some people don’t exhibit symptoms at all. Children can react differently than adults, and men can react differently than women. Celiac symptoms can also mirror those of other conditions, making self-diagnosis more difficult.
Cases of celiac disease seem to be rising in prevalence. In a NIH-sponsored study published in Gastroenterology, researchers concluded that the incidence of celiac disease has risen fourfold in the United States over the previous half-century. Reasons for the increase are unknown. Some experts point to changes in grain processing over the years, while others suggest that intestinal microbes are to blame. Still others note that changing patterns of childhood infection can affect general immunities over time. Yet another camp believes a major “trigger” such as a traumatic event or severe health issue could be the straw that pushes an otherwise healthy but genetically susceptible person over the edge.
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
In addition to digestive maladies such as bloating, constipation and diarrhea, the following are common side-effects of celiac disease:
- Joint pain
- Damage to dental enamel
- Itchy, blistery skin
- Numbness in extremities
In general, physicians advise seeking medical help if diarrhea symptoms persist for longer than two weeks.
How is celiac diagnosed?
The first step in diagnosing celiac disease is a simple blood test. If the results are indicative of the disease, an intestinal biopsy may be recommended to further confirm the diagnosis. In some cases, patients with gluten sensitivities turn out not to have celiac disease. This condition is known as non-celiac gluten sensitivity or NCGS, and the treatment remains the same as for those with celiac disease. The NCGS designation is relatively new and more research is needed, but early indicators show that cases of NCGS are 6-7 times more common than those of celiac disease.
What should you do if you think you may have sensitivity to gluten?
If you think that you may have a gluten sensitivity, make an appointment to see your provider. If a blood test is recommended, you’ll want to be sure that you have not already begun eating a gluten-free diet, as this may skew your results.
Need a provider? Visit valleymed.org/docs or call our free find-a-physician line: 425.277.DOCS (3627).
The South Seattle Gluten-Free Support Group meets at Valley Medical Center on the third Tuesday of each month from 7:00 – 9:00 pm in the Medical Arts Center (MAC) building, Conference Room B (northwest end of campus). Valley Medical Center is located at 400 S. 43rd Street in Renton, WA.