Coeliac Disease [pronounced see-liac] (and spelled as celiac in North America) is a serious autoimmune disease that affects one percent of the UK’s population.
Coeliac Disease isn’t a food allergy or a simple food intolerance and is completely different from Wheat Allergy.
If gluten is consumed (even the tiniest amount) by someone with coeliac disease, the immune system will attack its own tissues, causing damage to the lining of the gut (mainly the small intestine). This damage means the body can’t properly absorb nutrients from food resulting in malnutrition and other related conditions.
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye. Some people with coeliac disease are also sensitive to oats.
When someone with coeliac disease eats gluten, it trigger’s an immune response that causes inflammation of the small intestine. The villi (millions of finger-like small projections that absorb food and nutrients) in the lining of the small intestine are flattened as a result of the inflammation. Once flattened, the villi are unable to absorb the food and nutrients properly, this results in nutritional deficiency.
Suffering in Silence
Coeliac UK, estimate that 1 in 8 people who have coeliac disease are undiagnosed, this equates to over half a million people suffering unnecessarily. The average time for diagnosis is approx 13 years.
Symptoms of Coeliac Disease
Often people will confuse their symptoms with that of IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) or wheat intolerance.
With symptoms ranging from mild to severe it’s not surprising that many people attribute theirs to stress or even just part of the ageing process.
Symptoms include some of the following:
- recurrent miscarriages
- fertility problems
- vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency
- tooth enamel problems
- mouth ulcers
- hair loss (alopecia)
- skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis (DH))
- joint or bone pain
- neurological (nerve) problems such as ataxia (poor muscle co-ordination) and neuropathy (numbness and tingling in the hands and feet)
In the past it was thought that people with coeliac disease would be severely underweight but this is not the case. Most people with coeliac disease are within a normal weight range and in some cases are over-weight when diagnosed.
Who Gets Coeliac Disease?
One percent of the UK’s population suffer from coeliac disease. It does tend to run in families, so, if you have a close relative who has coeliac disease, you need to be aware of any symptoms as your odds increase to 1 in 10.
Getting a Diagnosis
If your GP refers you for a blood test for coeliac disease, it’s important that you have been eating a gluten containing diet for at least six weeks prior to your test or the test will show a false negative.
If your blood test is positive, then the next step will be to have a biopsy taken from your small intestine.
Both the blood test and the biopsy need to be carried out before an official diagnosis of coeliac disease can be confirmed.
I have Coeliac Disease – What Next?
Once you have been officially diagnosed, and have removed all gluten from your diet, you should soon start to feel much better.
Your GP (or Specialist) should refer you to a dietitian who will advise you on a gluten-free diet.
You can still eat meat, fish, vegetables, pulses, fruit, potatoes, corn, rice, eggs, milk and cheese. There are specialist gluten-free foods such as gluten-free pasta, gluten-free bread, gluten-free cakes and biscuits which are readily available in supermarkets and health food stores, on-line and also on prescription.
It is very important that you do not remove gluten from your diet until you have been given an official diagnosis of coeliac disease.
Coeliac UK is a leading charity working for people with coeliac disease and dermatitis herpetiformis, providing information and support. To find out what more about their services you can visit their website.