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Friday, December 19, 2014

Celiac Disease: Under-Diagnosed but Prevalent in United States

By Lizzy Scully
Berthoud Recorder

How many people have heard of celiac disease? It’s off the radar, despite the fact that it’s one of the most common chronic health disorders in Western countries. In fact, one in 133 Americans have it (that’s close to two million people), but only one in 4,700 are diagnosed. Many doctors who have been in practice for more than ten years don’t realize the prevalence of this problem, and so are less likely to make the correct diagnosis.

To complicate matters, this genetic disease resembles a variety of other diseases, such as irritable bowel syndrome and multiple sclerosis, among others, and it is regularly misdiagnosed.

So how do you know when you have it? Unfortunately, it affects different people in different ways. In some people in manifests in the digestive system, while in others it causes depression. Some digestive symptoms that are especially prevalent in children include: chronic diarrhea, abdominal pain, flatulence, vomiting, pale, foul-smelling or fatty stool and weight loss. Though adults suffer those same symptoms, they also may experience mild weakness and bone pain, anemia and muscle cramps and spasms, depression or anxiety, tingling numbness in hands and feet, among other things (see sidebar for additional symptoms). In fact, it doesn’t seem like there’s much that a celiac doesn’t suffer from.

Unfortunately, it gets worse. If the problem is not dealt with, these symptoms can cause dire long-term consequences, including intestinal damage, gastrointestinal cancers (celiac disease sufferers are 40 to 100 times more likely to get intestinal cancer than those without celiac disease) and osteoporosis. As well, celiacs can suffer from nerve disease and/or peripheral neuropathy. According to, current research illustrates that celiac disease stimulates the production of antibodies that attack areas other than the intestines, including the central nervous system. The subsequent neurological conditions mimic multiple sclerosis and can cause damage to the cerebellum, the posterior columns of the spinal cord and the peripheral nerves.

The longer people go without being diagnosed, the worse their prognosis is likely to be. However, on the bright side, the problem is easy to address.

“Celiacs” are unable to digest gluten, which is a protein found in various grains, including wheat, rye, barley and sweet rice. Furthermore, the gluten attacks and damages the lining of the small intestine, which is covered with tiny villi that function to absorb nutrients. Thus, no matter how much a person eats, they become malnourished because the walls of the small intestines can no longer transfer nutrients to the bloodstream. However, remove all gluten from the diet, and the problem disappears (unless irreversible damage has been done to the intestines, which is rare). In children it takes three to six months for the intestines to fully recover, and in adults it takes a few years.

However, celiacs must completely avoid gluten for the rest of their lives because even just a small amount can do major damage to the villi. A complete change in diet is often necessary and can be difficult if a person or family is accustomed to lots of processed foods. Still, the results will lead to improved health and wellness for the celiac, as well as an overall better quality of life.

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