Living With: Celiac Disease

So many people today choose to be “gluten free” for a variety of reasons, right or wrong, but there are certain individuals for whom gluten free is an absolute necessity: those who have Celiac disease.

Celiac disease is a condition in which the immune system attacks the surface of the small intestine in response to the presence of a food-based protein called gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye, and certain other grains. When gluten is consumed, the immune system destroys the small intestine’s absorptive surface, which is called the villi. Damage to the villi causes widespread malabsorption of nutrients, diarrhea, fatigue, weight loss, anemia, and more, including some other serious complications over time. There is no cure for Celiac disease, so if it is suspected, a proper diagnosis is critical.

Diagnosis cannot be accomplished using the ever-popular Dr. Google. A proper diagnosis involves blood work (looking for certain antibodies in the blood, as well as genetic testing, though the presence of the genes in question does not necessarily mean presence of the disease), and an endoscopy with a biopsy of the small intestine to look for the damage to the villi. Without these tools, an accurate diagnosis cannot be made.

Once a person is diagnosed, there is only one way to manage the condition: lifelong abstinence of gluten. This involves many dietary changes, as wheat and wheat derivatives are widely used throughout the American food supply. Once gluten is eliminated from the diet, the small intestine will recover and heal over time. However, even the slightest amount of gluten, including from cross contamination, can cause recurrent damage. Additionally, because the disease causes many negative nutritional changes to the body, supplementation of certain vitamins and minerals is also often necessary. Assistance from a Registered Dietitian is extremely helpful in learning how to make these important dietary changes.

Fortunately with a cornucopia of gluten free products on the market and more consistent product labeling, it is getting easier for a person with Celiac disease to find delicious and safe foods to eat. Restaurants and other food establishments are offering more options that are gluten free, and some even have dedicated kitchen equipment for their gluten free food preparation, to prevent cross contamination.

While Celiac disease is a very serious condition, it is, for the most part, quite manageable as long as one is careful with their diet and has assistance from qualified medical professionals. If you suspect that you or a loved one may have this condition, please see a gastroenterologist as soon as possible. Having an accurate diagnosis – for any condition, not just Celiac disease – is the first step in receiving correct treatment.