Six Myths about Celiac Disease
Myth: Celiac disease is a type of wheat allergy
Fact: Celiac Disease is not an allergy but an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by gluten. Gluten is a protein found in all form of wheat, rye barley, triticale and some oats. When someone with Celiac disease eats a food that contains gluten, the gluten will trigger an immune-mediated toxic reaction that damages the lining of the small intestines – the villi – and does not allow food to be properly absorbed. Symptoms can include abdominal pain, constipation, decreased appetite, diarrhea, lactose intolerance, nausea and vomiting, and various symptoms of malnutrition due to the lack of nutrients absorbed into the body.
While the reaction seems allergic, it is actually an immune response, not an allergic response. Celiac disease is, however, a genetic disorder.
Myth: Celiac is a kind of inflammatory bowel disease
Fact: Both inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) and celiac disease are autoimmune disorders that affect digestion and food absorption, and cause similar symptoms but they are not the same disease. IBD is a term for both Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis, two diseases that cause adverse autoimmune responses in the digestive tract. Doctors do not know what causes these autoimmune flares but do know that they do not have to be triggered by gluten.
Celiac disease on the other hand has a definite cause and effect, a toxic reaction to the gluten protein that damages the lining of the small intestines. A person with IBD could also suffer from celiac disease or a form of gluten sensitivity but they are two distinct diseases with different causes and effects.
Myth: Celiac disease should be diagnosed by doing an elimination diet
Fact: You can discover a whole myriad of food sensitivities by doing an elimination diet – a diet that systematically eliminates then specific types of food to determine the cause of an allergic or autoimmune reaction – but there are lab tests that can and should be done to definitively diagnose celiac disease. If you think you may have celiac disease, it is best to have the tests performed and know for certain.
To diagnose celiac disease, the doctor will run a series of blood tests that screen for antibodies created by the autoimmune reaction to gluten. If these antibodies are discovered, the doctor will perform an endoscopy. An endoscopy allows a clear picture of the esophagus and small bowel so the doctor can assess any damage to the intestinal lining of the small bowel and biopsy problem areas.
Myth: If I think I have celiac disease I should stop eating gluten immediately
Fact: If you suspect that you have celiac disease make an appointment with your doctor but carry on with your normal diet. To accurately diagnose celiac disease the doctor will order a series of blood tests to screen for specific antibodies created by the autoimmune reaction to gluten. If there is no reaction there are no antibodies and the tests will not result in an accurate diagnosis.
Myth: All ‘Gluten-free” labeled products are safe for people with Celiac Disease
Fact: The FDA as of now does not have specific regulations for the labeling of gluten-free products leaving most of the decisions to the food manufacturers. Without clear regulation, it is possible that traces of gluten could be found in foods labeled ‘gluten-free’, especially in products that would naturally have gluten such as baked goods and flour.
For people with celiac disease it is best to avoid all foods that might have gluten in them regardless of their gluten-free claims.
Myth: You can grow out of celiac disease or cure it all together
Fact: There is no cure for celiac disease other than to totally eliminate gluten from your diet. The good news is that the symptoms associated with celiac disease will subside and the villi in the lining of the intestines can heal if you follow a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life. Most damage to the villi is healed after 3 to 6 months of a gluten-free diet for children and 2 to 3 years of a gluten-free diet for adults.
National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine (2012). Retrieved from website: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0001280/
U.S. Food and Drug Administration, Questions and Answers on the gluten-free labeling proposed rule (2007). Retrieved from website: https://www.fda.gov/food/labelingnutrition/foodallergenslabeling/guidancecomplianceregulatoryinformation/ucm111487.htm
Sara is a former editor for HealthCentral.