Some people may label a gluten-free diet as a growing trend, but for those living with celiac disease, it’s a necessary lifestyle for overall health and wellness.
James T. Phoenix, II, M.D., an internal medicine physician with Ascension St. John in Tulsa, explains that celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune condition that causes damage to the small intestine, leading to an intolerance to gluten – a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
“An autoimmune condition means that a person’s immune system mistakenly attacks their own body,” says Phoenix. “In this case, it causes chronic inflammation of the small intestine that is made worse when exposed to gluten. The common symptoms are abdominal discomfort, fatigue, diarrhea and weight loss, and people may or may not be aware that certain foods trigger these symptoms.”
He adds that celiac disease is a relatively rare condition that affects approximately 1% of the world’s population and is most common in people of European descent.
“Gluten sensitivity is a more common dietary intolerance that affects an estimated 6% of people in the United States,” says Phoenix. “While it causes similar symptoms, it does not cause the same kind of serious damage in the intestine that happens with celiac disease.”
According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, people with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child or sibling) have a one in ten risk of developing celiac disease – and the disease can develop at any age after an individual begins consuming gluten. In addition, individuals with celiac disease are at greater risk of developing coronary artery disease and small bowel cancers.
If left untreated, celiac disease can also lead to other health problems including type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash), anemia, osteoporosis, infertility and neurological conditions.
“If a person notices that they have this kind of food intolerance, they should seek medical attention,” says Phoenix. “The most common test for celiac disease is a simple blood test, looking for the antibodies that cause the condition. It can also be diagnosed by intestinal biopsies, but this is usually not necessary.”
There is no known cure for celiac disease, and Phoenix says the main treatment for celiac disease or gluten sensitivity is to avoid gluten-containing foods.
Is Celiac on the Rise?
Anecdotally, it may seem like more people are developing celiac disease, but Phoenix says as with other food intolerances and allergies, it’s not becoming more common, but rather more commonly recognized and more publicly discussed.
“Our bodies are not really evolved to eat foods that are high in carbohydrates, including gluten-containing foods, so moderation in these foods is good for general health as well as for people that have a genetic intolerance to them,” says Phoenix.
When choosing food products, the Celiac Disease Foundation recommends consumers pay close attention to product labels. The FDA only allows packaged food to be labeled ‘gluten-free’ if it contains less than 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten. However, consumers should still check products for allergen listings and obvious ingredients: wheat, barley, rye, malt, brewer’s yeast and oats (unless specifically labeled gluten-free).