Coeliac disease is a genetic condition that is caused by an inability to digest gluten. Hence the reason that this disease is also known as gluten intolerance. It appears that genetics predispose some people to coeliac disease. For these people, some of the constituents of proteins found in wheat, in gluten and gliadin, become toxic to the lining of the stomach.
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The condition is often diagnosed in childhood after weaning when cereals are introduced into the diet, although it can be diagnosed at any age. The symptoms can be subtle, and you may feel unwell for no reason for some time before the diagnosis is made.
When gluten comes into contact with the lining of the small bowel, a reaction occurs, where the immune system mistakenly attacks the lining of the bowel as if it was a ‘foreign’ organism.
• diarrhoea, weight loss or failure to grow, and malnutrition.
Sufferers sometimes have a swollen or bloated stomach. As a consequence of these symptoms, the sufferer can end up with problems such as anaemia and osteoporosis due to the lack of absorption of vitamin D and calcium.
People with coeliac disease may also develop problems associated with absorbing iron and vitamins less well ie anaemia, which leads to general tiredness and sometimes shortness of breath or fluid retention.
People with coeliac disease also have a greater risk of some bowel cancers which can also be reduced by following a gluten free diet.
Gluten sensitivity is also associated with Dermatitis Herpetiformis which is characterised by a red blistery rash. This is also treated by adhering to a gluten free diet, although medication is also sometimes used.
Because of the broad range of symptoms coeliac disease presents, it can be difficult to diagnose. This is usually done via blood tests or sometimes by biopsy of the stomach lining.
The only acceptable treatment for coeliac disease is strict adherence to a 100% gluten-free diet for life. An adherence to a gluten-free diet can prevent almost all complications caused by the disease. A gluten-free diet means avoiding all products that contain wheat, rye and barley, or any of their derivatives. This is a difficult task as there are many hidden sources of gluten found in the ingredients of many processed foods.
When diagnosed, your doctor may refer you to a dietician who will help you to determine what you can and cannot eat. Most gluten free foods in the supermarkets are now labeled as such.
Many restaurants can help you if you ring ahead of time and advise what you can have. They will usually try to cater to your needs if they can.
By: Anne Wolski