Gluten-free foods line shelves in many supermarkets; they’re touted on restaurant menus. But the disorder at the root of this diet trend can be tough to diagnose.
When people with celiac disease eat gluten — a protein found in bread, pasta and lots of other wheat, barley and rye products — their body’s immune system reacts by attacking the lining of the small intestine, which damages its ability to absorb necessary nutrients. Roughly 1.8 million Americans have celiac disease, yet a recent study found most of them — about 1.4 million — don’t know it. That’s a big problem because, left untreated, celiac disease can lead to serious complications, including malnutrition, osteoporosis and even raise your risk of some cancers.
For information that will help you recognize and manage the condition, read on:
It’s hereditary. If you have relatives with celiac, consider getting tested. Also, if you already have an autoimmune condition — such as type 1 diabetes or thyroid disease — then you’re more likely to develop another one, such as celiac. FYI, the condition doesn’t discriminate between men and women, age or race, and there’s no known cause.
Symptoms vary. Celiac disease is associated with hundreds of symptoms, from diarrhea, stomach pain and bloating to less-expected ones including irritability, depression, fatigue, skin rash, weight loss, tingling in the legs and feet, even mouth sores and tooth discoloration. A new study found people with celiac appear to suffer from more migraines than people without it. In kids, delayed growth may indicate celiac. To make diagnosing even more challenging, some people have no symptoms at all.
Think you have it? If so, get a doctor’s appointment but don’t stop eating gluten — yet. As counter-intuitive as that sounds, the blood tests and biopsies used to diagnose celiac may appear normal after you eliminate gluten from your diet. Once diagnosed, then go gluten-free: That’s our only treatment for celiac disease. Avoid the protein, and your small intestine heals. (Scientists recently reported on the potential of a pill that could allow celiac sufferers to eat gluten-containing foods without symptoms, but much more research is needed.) You may also need vitamin and mineral supplements. Work with your doctor or dietitian to create a healthy gluten-free eating plan.
“The Doctors” is an Emmy-winning daytime TV show with pediatrician Jim Sears, OB-GYN Lisa Masterson, ER physician Travis Stork and plastic surgeon Andrew Ordon. Check www.thedoctorstv.com for local listings.