Celiac Disease: What You Need to Know
Cases of celiac disease are on the rise — especially in older adults. Find out what symptoms your doctor could be overlooking
Imagine a common protein that can make you sick — really sick.
For people who suffer from celiac disease, the body’s inability to tolerate gluten can cause problems ranging from persistent tummy troubles and fatigue to malnutrition, bone loss and an increased risk for certain cancers. Once thought to be a rare disease that shows up in children, celiac disease is on the rise — and it’s showing up more often in older adults.
This medical condition, also known as gluten intolerance or gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is an autoimmune condition where the body’s immune system reacts to gluten, a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye and spelt. The result? Damage to the intestinal villi — the tiny, finger-shaped structures that line the small bowel — that makes it difficult for the body to absorb essential nutrients like iron, calcium, vitamin D and protein. It’s not an allergy or intolerance to wheat, but rather a component of the grain.
Over time, the accumulating damage can result in malnutrition, bone loss, infertility, miscarriages and an increased risk for lymphoma and gastrointestinal cancers. Even more troublesome is the fact that celiac disease keeps company with other chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, lupus, Down syndrome and thyroid disease.
Research in the past few years has been challenging what we thought we knew about the condition. A study conducted at the University of Maryland School of Medicine Center for Celiac Research, recently published in the Annals of Medicine, revealed two interesting trends:
First, celiac disease is more common than we think. Blood tests from over 3500 participants revealed that the number of people with blood markers for celiac disease roughly doubled every 15 years — from 1 in 501 people in 1974 to 1 in 219 by 1984 and finally 1 in 133 in 2003.
Could you or someone you know be unknowingly suffering from celiac disease? The symptoms and severity vary from person to person, but can include:
– Digestive issues including bloating, gas, indigestion, nausea, constipation and recurring diarrhea.
– Signs of malabsorption. Many people with celiac disease have deficiencies of iron (anemia) as well as vitamins A, D, E, K, B12 and folate. Many people with celiac disease are also lactose intolerant because the intestinal damage affects their ability to break down lactase, a naturally occurring sugar found in dairy products.
– Extreme weakness and fatigue.
– Unexplained weight loss.
– Bone or joint pain.
– Easy bruising or abnormal bleeding.
– Ulcers or canker sores in the mouth.
– Migraine headaches.
– Fluid retention, particularly swelling in the ankles or hands.
– Infertility (which occurs in both men and women).
– Menstrual irregularities.
Right now, the only treatment available for celiac disease is to follow a gluten-free diet. The good news is that some people begin to see relief within days of starting the diet — but it is a lifetime commitment. The intestinal damage will heal, but the intolerance never goes away.
Living gluten-free means avoiding the obvious culprits like certain grains and all products containing gluten. That last part is harder than it sounds because gluten can show up where you don’t expect it, like in sauces, candy, processed meats, some medications and supplements, malt vinegar and beer. Careful label reading is a must, as is consultation with a dietician to help create a balanced diet.
While the gluten-free diet is challenging and expensive, there are more resources and better awareness than ever before. More gluten-free products are available, even in mainstream stores, and better efforts are made to ensure accurate labeling. There are even gluten-free restaurants and bakeries popping up across the globe. Gluten-free food bloggers and cookbooks also make it easier to prepare tasty meals and baked goods (many of which will fool non-celiacs too).
Need a little inspiration? Here are some recipes to get you started: