Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Its cause remains a mystery, and its symptoms are so varied that they can seem totally unrelated. And those who have it may have been misdiagnosed, only prolonging their suffering.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder characterized by intolerance for gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation. It can appear at any time in a person’s life, including childhood.
When people with celiac disease eat foods or use products that contain gluten, their immune systems react by damaging areas of the intestinal lining called villi, which help absorb nutrients.
The resulting inflammatory response can cause anemia and damage to other tissues of the body.
Fortunately, most cases of celiac are not that severe, and some patients show few or no symptoms. But others experience symptoms for years while doctors struggle to diagnose the condition, sometimes mistaking it for Irritable Bowel Syndrome, acid reflux or other ailments.
The diagnosis has become more common, but experts say many doctors still see the condition as relatively rare, so they might not immediately think to test for it.
“I’ve been a dietitian for almost 20 years now, and maybe once a year I might see it,” said Pam Green, a registered dietitian whose husband and son both have celiac disease. “I used to have to get out my literature and look at that, and now I see several a year. It’s just the tip of the iceberg of who is diagnosed.”
Blood work, endoscopy or biopsy can test for the disease.
Celiac has received more attention in the media in the last several years, thanks in part to the celebrities who have popularized a gluten-free diet. Gwyneth Paltrow gushes over it; talk show host Elizabeth Hasselbeck even wrote a book about it.
Increased awareness of celiac has led to more gluten-free food choices in supermarkets and restaurants, Green says.
“That these big companies like General Mills would go ahead and reformulate their Chex products, that’s huge,” she said. “Or that Betty Crocker would make gluten-free mixes that actually taste OK. Those were not there 10 years ago.”
Besides the obvious grain sources, gluten is also an additive in many processed foods, from ketchup to canned soups to cheese and lunch meats. Avoiding it can be difficult, especially in homes where some family members eat gluten.
Gannett News Service