Celiac Disease in a Nutshell

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May is National Celiac Awareness Month, inviting a better understanding of a condition that challenges 3 million Americans. One of the toughest aspects of this disease is how misunderstood it can be. In fact, celiac disease (CD) has been called a “clinical chameleon” because it can be so difficult to diagnose.

CD is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that occurs in genetically predisposed people of all ages when they consume gluten─a protein found in grains like wheat, rye or barley, as well as many other foods and condiments.

When these individuals consume gluten, an immune reaction is triggered in the lining of the gastrointestinal tract resulting in the destruction of villi─tiny, finger-like projections found in the small intestine that absorb the nutrients from the foods we eat.

Along with impaired nutrient absorption, CD patients may experience vomiting, abdominal discomfort, stomach upset, weight loss or changes in bowel movements. Over time, more problems appear due to an ongoing loss of essential vitamins and minerals. Complications may also include lactose intolerance, changes in bone strength and density, and even an increased risk of cancer.

As we’ve learned, diagnosis can be difficult, as symptoms vary among sufferers. However, if CD is suspected, blood tests for specific antibodies can shed some light on the situation. If the tests are positive, a cell sample is taken from the small intestine, which may show impaired villi.

While there is presently no cure for CD, those afflicted can manage it with a gluten free diet. Many doctors are amazed to see how quickly patients improve once gluten is removed from their daily fare. In fact, a mere two to three days is enough to facilitate the healing of CD-related intestinal damage.

Nonetheless, CD is a lifelong condition, which can quickly reappear when triggered by gluten. On a positive note, a clear diagnosis is the hardest part. Once you “know the enemy,” you know what to do─avoid gluten wherever it lurks! Be prepared to be vigilant, however, as gluten is found in a host of foods, sauces, dressings, and condiments.

Fortunately, many companies offer gluten-free alternatives─from salad dressings, to waffles, to soy sauce, and much more. In fact, some natural food stores have entire gluten-free sections! Stay tuned for more information on living healthy with CD.

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