Celiac Disease Explained

Celiac disease, also known as Coeliac, is a common, chronic digestive problem and is not, contrary to popular belief, simply a food intolerance nor an allergic reaction. In fact, it is an autoimmune disease whereby the body’s immune system fights its own healthy cells. By being chronic, it means that the disease is persistent or continual in nature and although there is no cure because a person will always have the disease, the symptoms can nonetheless be effectively controlled.

It is estimated that between 0.5 and 1% of people in the United States and the United Kingdom are afflicted with celiac disease. And it is not limited to people of European descent only. Celiac disease affects all ethnic groups, and although prevalent in Europe and the USA, it can affect people in Latin America, the Middle East, South East Asia, and Northern Africa. Additionally, women are two to three times more apt to contract celiac disease than men.

Autoimmune problems exist when the immune system mistakes perfectly good cells for harmful ones and it tries to protect the body by producing antibodies to fight the bad ones. Antibodies are generally created to fight off harmful enemies such as viruses and bacteria. In the case of Celiac disease, the antibodies attack the fragile lining of the small intestine which is responsible for absorbing the nutrients from food.

These kinds of immune reactions have triggers, but, in this case the irritant is gluten. Gluten is mainly composed of two proteins called gliadin and glutenin. It is typically found in wheat and other grains such as rye and barley. A small number of people are believed to be sensitive to oats, however, this is also thought to be due to the infiltration of wheat during processing. Opinion on this point is varied.

Celiac disease is found in any age bracket and can be diagnosed as early an age as when babies finish weaning, which makes sense, as that is usually the time when cereals containing gluten are first introduced into their diets. Nevertheless, the most common age of diagnosis is presently between forty and sixty years old.

The symptoms do vary from person to person and range from mild to severe. Individual symptoms are numerous and might include persistent unexplained nausea and vomiting, constipation, diarrhoea, deteriorated tooth enamel, osteoporosis and nerve problems like sensations of numbness and tingling in the hands or feet. This seems to be proof that the common misconception surrounding symptoms being limited to the digestive system is not valid.

Because the symptoms can be subtle, sufferers may not feel well for no apparent reason for a long period of time before a diagnosis is made, especially when the symptoms are often signals of other illnesses. In fact, it is quite common to confuse celiac disease with Irritable Bowel Syndrome or even a wheat intolerance.

Diagnosis involves taking cell samples of the small intestine, as well as conducting antibody tests on a blood sample. Both of these tests include analysing the samples for the presence of a particular antibody and determining the actual amount present.

The only way to successfully treat celiac disease is to adapt new eating habits, and honor a gluten free diet. By removing gluten from the diet, the gut is allowed to heal, and the symptoms diminish. Of course, making such a significant adjustment to one’s diet, especially when gluten containing products are the norm in stores, can be challenging for many people, but in particular, children. Speaking with a dietician or another healthcare provider can aid in making the adjustment easier through guidance and the ability to network with support groups of other sufferers.

A common myth is that once the symptoms are no longer evident, that you can return to a diet that includes gluten. This is not how celiac disease works. The symptoms will return.

Once Celiac disease is diagnosed, the treatment includes education and planning. At this point, sufferers can begin the process of healing and move forward in a positive effort to effectively manage the disease.

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