Celiac disease, once a little-known autoimmune condition, has become much more prevalent in recent years, now affecting about one out of every 141 Americans. It is caused by an immune reaction to gluten—a protein in wheat, rye, and barley—that provokes the immune system to attack the lining of the small intestine. These grains are found in bread, cereal and most processed foods.
Experts speculate that the increase may have to do with how grains are bred these days. Another theory holds that overzealous hygiene and a reliance on infant formula have led to the autoimmune disease. For reasons unknown, celiac disease is more common among Caucasians than other racial groups.
Although traditionally considered a disease that shows up in childhood, people of any age may develop it. The signs and symptoms vary widely, but some of the most common symptoms of celiac disease include the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating, excessive gas
- Unexplained weight loss
- Generalized weakness and fatigue
- Muscle cramps
Celiac disease can run in families. Not all who inherit the genes will contract the disease, however. Many scientists believe that a combination of genetic and environmental factors—such as a traumatic injury, infection, or severe stress—can cause it to occur.
When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products that contain gluten, their small intestine becomes damaged, and nutrients from food are not absorbed properly. It’s important to speak with your doctor if you think you are experiencing the signs and symptoms associated with this disorder. Early diagnosis and a strict adherence to a gluten-free diet can decrease the impact of its severity on your health. If you are diagnosed with celiac disease and need help starting a gluten-free diet, a registered dietitian can be a great resource. Ask your physician for a referral or use Find-A-Doc to locate participating registered dietitians in your area.
Gluten Sensitivity: Similar but Different
It’s not unusual for people to say they feel much better after dropping gluten from their diets, even though they may not have celiac disease. These people may be experiencing “non-celiac gluten sensitivity,” a subject which is still being studied. Gluten sensitivity has contributed to a rapidly growing market for gluten-free products, expected to surpass $6.2 billion worldwide by 2018, according to one estimate.
Unfortunately, there is still a lot that scientists don’t know about gluten sensitivity, including how much gluten is needed to trigger symptoms and even whether gluten is the real culprit. Research published in the medical journal Gastroenterology in 2013 indicates that other dietary compounds in wheat, specifically FODMAPs (fermentable, oligo-, di-, monosaccharides, and polyols) may be causing illness among people who assume they are gluten-intolerant.
Looking for ways to improve your health and diet? Reducing your consumption of processed foods and following dietary guidelines for starchy grains are probably good ideas even if you aren’t gluten-sensitive. Consider speaking with a nutrition health coach or taking a wellness class to get some guidance on healthy eating. These services are available at no cost to CDPHP members.