Gluten-free diets may be in style, but there’s nothing glamorous about celiac disease, a genetic autoimmune disorder of the small intestine. It’s estimated to affect 1 in 100 people worldwide, with 2.5 million undiagnosed Americans at risk for long-term health problems.
Celiac and Gluten
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and some oats. When a celiac patient eats gluten, the body mounts immune attacks on the small intestine. These aggressive immune responses damage the villi, tiny fingerlike projections that line the intestinal wall and facilitate nutrient absorption. Only a strict, gluten-free diet can treat celiac disease, by promoting intestinal healing and nutrient absorption over time. Many celiac patients are asymptomatic, but others experience a range of 200 symptoms including diarrhea and bloating. These symptoms typically improve a few weeks into the diet.
Risk Factors and Next Steps
Celiac runs in families, and patients with a diagnosed parent, sibling, or child have a 1 in 10 risk of developing the disease. The risk is also increased for people of European descent and those with immune system disorders, such as type 1 diabetes and rheumatoid arthritis. Celiac is the most common genetic disease in Europe, yet it almost never occurs in Africa, China, or Japan. Despite a cuisine renowned for its pastas, pizzas, breads and pastries, celiac disease is particularly prevalent in Italy.
A simple blood test is available for celiac disease. When celiac sufferers consume gluten, their immune systems produce high levels of a specific, screenable antibody. The blood test diagnosis is then confirmed by endoscopic biopsy of the small intestine. If you experience any gluten sensitivity, get screened by the digestive disease specialists at Concorde Gastroenterology this Celiac Awareness Month.