What is Celiac disease (CD) and how do you know if you have it?
Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation's web site, "Celiac Disease is a digestive disorder that affects both children and adults. When people with CD eat foods that contain gluten, it creates an immune-mediated toxic reaction that causes damage to the small intestine and does not allow food to be properly absorbed. Even small amounts of gluten in foods can affect those with CD and cause health problems. Damage can occur to the small bowel even when there are no symptoms present."
So, what is gluten then? Gluten is a protein that is found in all forms of wheat - this includes durum, semolina, spelt, and kamut. Gluten is also found in rye, barley, triticale, and some oats. Basically, all bread, pasta, cereal, and crackers made with any of these gluten-containing ingredients cannot be eaten if you are diagnosed with Celiac disease. Contrary to popular thought, CD is not simply an allergy to wheat - allergies can change, you can grow into an allergy or you can grow out of an allergy. Celiac disease is not something that you grow into or out of, it is an autoimmune disorder that is a lifelong illness.
Awareness of Celiac disease is on the increase. Studies now show that an estimated 1 in every 133 people in the U.S. have Celiac disease and most of those people are unaware of it. Doctors are becoming more aware of its presence and therefore patients are now being checked for CD more often than in the past.
But how do you know if you have Celiac disease? Some people with CD have no symptoms while other people with CD have symptoms that may be mistaken for other illnesses like IBD, IBS, depression, or gynecological problems. Some common physical symptoms that can point to CD include: bloating, gas, abdominal cramps, abdominal distention, diarrhea, constipation, fatigue, eczema, dry skin, night vision problems, weight loss, and mouth sores. Other symptoms such as depression, irritability, inability to concentrate, or amenorrhea can also be signs of Celiac disease.
If you have some of these symptoms and think Celiac disease could be the cause, do NOT stop eating gluten before you see your doctor to discuss your symptoms. If your physician agrees with your suspicion he or she will likely order a specific series of blood tests that screen for certain antibodies which indicate the presence of CD. But, you must be eating gluten for these tests to be accurate. These blood tests, however, can only assess your risk for having CD. If blood tests come back indicating this risk, then an endoscopy of the small bowel will be performed to confirm the diagnosis. Endoscopy allows your doctor to see and assess the health or degree of damage in the intestinal lining of your small bowel, and gives them the opportunity to take biopsies of the small bowel as well.
Because Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease, if you or anyone in your family is diagnosed with CD, then it is strongly recommended that other members of your family be tested as well. Studies have been done showing a familial link with CD.