Did you know that nearly 1% of Americans have Celiac disease? That’s 1 in 133 people, but only about 17% of those with Celiac disease are diagnosed!
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that affects multiple body systems if left untreated. When people with Celiac disease consume gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, their immune system mounts an attack against the small intestine. This causes inflammation and damage to the small intestine, resulting in poor absorption of nutrients.
Symptoms and Complications of Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is tricky to diagnosis because it presents with over 200 symptoms and sometimes no symptoms at all. Some of the more common symptoms include diarrhea, gas, bloating. Another common symptom is unintentional weight loss or failure to grow in children. However, Celiac disease can also cause symptoms not related to digestion. These symptoms include “brain fog,”muscle pain, nerve pain, fatigue, discolored teeth, bone loss, anemia, and a severe, itchy skin rash.
Long term complications of untreated Celiac disease include osteoporosis, anemia, infertility and miscarriage, some types of intestinal cancers, and neurological disorders. People with Celiac disease are also at a higher risk of developing other autoimmune conditions such as Type 1 diabetes, thyroid disease, liver disease and multiple sclerosis.
Testing for Celiac Disease
If you think you have Celiac disease it is very important to talk to your doctor before starting a gluten free diet. There are several tests to check for Celiac disease. Your doctor will probably start with blood tests to see if your body is making antibodies to gluten. In order to get accurate results, you should still be eating gluten when you are tested. Otherwise, you may have a false negative result for some or all of these tests.
If the blood tests are positive, the next step is to get a biopsy of your small intestine to check for damage to the villi, small hair like projections that line your small intestine and help you absorb nutrients. The doctor can take a biopsy of your small intestine by doing an endoscopy. This allows the doctor to directly see any damage that might be happening to your small intestine due to Celiac disease.
The Gluten Free Diet and Celiac Disease
Although there is no medical treatment or cure for Celiac disease, a strict 100% gluten free diet for life helps symptoms resolve in most people. For people with Celiac disease there is no cheating allowed! Even one bite of gluten containing food can cause damage to the gut and could cause symptoms.
Following a gluten free diet means avoiding any and all foods made with wheat, barley, rye, and malt. Although oats are naturally gluten free, most oats are contaminated with wheat and should also be avoided. Only oats that are certified gluten free are safe for people with Celiac disease. People with Celiac disease need to be extremely careful to avoid hidden sources of gluten. For example, gluten containing ingredients are often found in gravy, soup, salad dressing, French fries, deli meats, veggie burgers and soy sauce.
Nearly 70% of those with Celiac disease accidentally consume gluten. Eating at restaurants and social functions are often places where accidental gluten ingestion occurs. Many restaurants now offer gluten free menus, but it is still very important to ask about how the food is prepared to make sure it has not been cross contaminated. If you live with other people who do no have to follow a gluten free diet, be sure to keep your foods and kitchenware free from gluten crumbs or flour.
Resources for People with Celiac Disease
Thankfully, there are many resources and tasty food options available to help patients follow a gluten free diet! If you are new to Celiac disease or want to learn more, check out the Celiac Disease Foundation and Beyond Celiac for helpful tips, recipes and product recommendations. There is even an app to help you find gluten free restaurants!
Following a gluten free diet for life can seem overwhelming at first. Even though a gluten free diet is restrictive, it can still be delicious and healthy! A registered dietitian can help you learn the best way to follow and stay healthy on a gluten free diet. If you need help following a gluten free diet or have been recently diagnosed with Celiac disease, set up a nutrition counseling appointment with our experienced Registered Dietitian, Joanna Eaton, by calling 301-218-1319.