Gluten Free : Could Celiac Be Causing Digestive Woes?

Millions may be unaware that their suffering from common ailments like heartburn, stomach pain, and other digestive problems is because of the autoimmune disease known as celiac sprue. According to a Mayo Clinic study in the July 2009 issue of Gastroenterology, celiac disease is four times more common today than it was in the 1950s and many cases are going undiagnosed.

Celiac disease is a chronic autoimmune condition in which people do not tolerate the protein gluten found in wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut, and contaminated oats. Consumption of this protein damages the lining of the small intestines and can lead to a myriad of health problems.

The disease is more common than previously thought, affecting 1 in 133 Americans. Some believe it may even be more prevalent than that. It is hereditary, so if a close relative has the condition you are at an increased risk for the disease.

Celiac disease can elicit a wide range of symptoms that can vary in intensity making diagnosis a challenge. Some gastrointestinal symptoms include bloating, gas, indigestion, and heartburn. People may experience either diarrhea or constipation and there may be weight loss, but that is not always the case. There are many other symptoms which can include anemia, arthritis, depression, fatigue, osteoporosis, stunted growth in children, and skin disorders. Because many of these symptoms are also common in those without celiac disease, someone can suffer for years or decades and not know the reason behind their sub-optimal health.

Dan is one of those people. He suffered for years with various symptoms, some were GI related but other symptoms were not, such as his extreme itching. “The itching was extreme and constant and nearly drove me crazy. I had ringing in my ears which I attributed to working in a loud environment. These symptoms went on for years. I went to many doctors over the years who never suggested celiac disease.”

Dan also suffered from heartburn requiring a prescription medicine and chronic anemia and GI bleeding. It wasn’t until Dan moved to a new state and under the care of a new physician did he receive the appropriate testing and diagnosis that would change his life.

“After about four days on the gluten free diet, my itching stopped and my ears stopped ringing,” said Dan. “I also no longer suffer from heartburn.”

Finding a healthcare professional who works to understand the cause of the symptoms, rather than just cover them up, is essential in diagnosing celiac disease. According to the National Institutes of Health, the average time it takes for diagnosis is ten years! Physicians will consider your history and symptoms and will often do blood work to check for antibodies and an intestinal biopsy for an accurate diagnosis. Genetic testing is also available to assess one’s risk. It won’t diagnose active celiac disease though.

It is important to know that you must be eating gluten for at least 4 to 6 weeks prior to antibody testing and the gut biopsy. If you go on a trial gluten free diet to see if symptoms improve before testing the results may show up as a false negative. You need gluten in your system for the test to be accurate. Some people choose to live gluten free even though tests show they don’t have confirmed celiac disease. These individuals may have a gluten or wheat sensitivity or intolerance that is not true celiac disease.

Untreated celiac disease can increase the risk for certain intestinal cancers and other autoimmune disorders, not to mention the continuation of the symptoms of the disease. The only way to treat celiac disease is to follow a gluten free diet for life. Adhering to the diet can drastically reduce the risk of associated complications and relieve symptoms.

Fortunately for all those who must go gluten free there are now many wonderful gluten free products available, from pizza crusts to bagels and beyond, making life a little easier for the celiac sufferer.

Megan Witt