1 in 100 people worldwide suffers from celiac disease, so it is not a rare condition, but a serious one. 80% of people with celiac disease are not diagnosed and are needlessly suffering.

The month of May is celiac disease awareness month. In honor of that, Hitaf Zwein, nutritionist and dietitian, will explain what celiac disease is, how serious its symptoms are, and what you should do as a person suffering from this disease.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that’s triggered when you eat gluten. It’s also known as celiac sprue, non-tropical sprue, or gluten-sensitive enteropathy. Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains. It’s what makes dough elastic and gives bread its chewy texture.

When someone with celiac disease eats something with gluten, their body overreacts to the protein and damages their villi, small finger-like projections found along the wall of their small intestine.

Normally, the body's immune system is designed to protect it from foreign invaders. In this case, the body of a celiac person attacks itself instead of fighting objects in the person’s system. When the villi are injured, your small intestine can’t properly absorb nutrients from food. If the small intestines cannot absorb nutrients, the person ends up malnourished, no matter how much he or she eats. 

What causes celiac disease to happen?

Celiac disease can develop at any age after people start eating foods or medications that contain gluten, but the precise cause isn't known. Sometimes celiac disease becomes active after surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, viral infection, or severe emotional stress.

It is also genetic and hereditary. Celiac disease tends to run in families. If someone in your family has the condition, ask your doctor if you should be tested.

How to know if you have celiac disease?

There are two steps to being diagnosed with celiac disease: the blood test and the endoscopy. An endoscopy is a procedure in which an instrument is introduced into the body to give a view of its internal parts. So what you need to do is consult your gastroenterologist (in a less fancy word: your stomach doctor). They can help you get tested and deal with the results appropriately.

Getting tested is really important because celiacs are prone to twice the heart problems compared to a healthy person, and are prone to four times the risk of small bowel cancer. If that’s not enough, celiacs are also prone to type 1 diabetes, multiple sclerosis, and many more long-term diseases. The longer you put off getting tested, the higher your chance of developing another autoimmune disease along with several health problems. Book that doctor’s appointment asap!

What are the symptoms of celiac disease?

Just like any other disease, celiac has silent symptoms and extreme ones. Since celiac is not the same as a gluten allergy, here’s a list combining the most recurrent symptoms witnessed in patients:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Anemia
  • Bloating or a feeling of fullness
  • Bone or joint pain
  • Constipation
  • Diarrhea
  • Gas
  • Heartburn
  • Itchy, blistery rash (doctors call this dermatitis herpetiformis)
  • Headaches or fatigue
  • Mouth ulcers
  • Nausea
  • Nervous system injury, including numb or tingling hands or feet, balance problems, or changes in awareness
  • Poop that’s pale and smells especially bad, or floats (steatorrhea)
  • Weight loss

Beware that celiac disease is slightly more common in women than in men. It affects fertility and periods in women. It may lead to PCOS (Polycystic ovary syndrome) infertility and recurrent miscarriages in women trying to get pregnant.

Celiac disease affects the person’s mental health also by causing depression and anxiety. In children, it stunts their growth because they are not getting the right amount of nutrients to grow.

How to treat celiac disease?

Currently, the only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet. People living gluten-free must avoid foods with wheat, rye, and barley, such as bread and beer. Ingesting small amounts of gluten, like crumbs from a cutting board or toaster, can trigger small intestine damage. Gluten can also be found in medicine, preservatives, and supplements. In order to avoid triggering an episode, make sure anything you eat is certified “gluten-free”. Even then, make sure of the quantity of gluten in the product. It cannot contain more than 20 parts per million of gluten, which is the safe threshold of gluten consumption for people with celiac disease. 

As a celiac person, you should be wary of cross-contamination. Cross-contamination is when a gluten-free food or food product is exposed to a gluten-containing ingredient or food rendering it unsafe for people with celiac disease to eat. There are many obvious (and not-so-obvious) sources of cross-contamination at home and in restaurants and other foodservice locations.

As we’ve mentioned before, get tested first. Then you can consult a dietitian and nutritionist to assist you by recommending the most nutritious gluten-free food available. Your dietitian can help you maximize the value of the food you eat so you can live a full life without consuming gluten at all.

If you have a reason for limiting more than just gluten in your diet, meeting with a dietitian is important to make sure that what you are eating is nutritionally balanced. From diabetes to vegetarianism, food allergies, inflammatory bowel disease, iron deficiency, and religious diets, it can be very complicated to get enough physically nourishing food to maintain good health. Dietitians are specifically trained to manage multiple dietary restrictions.

Check the Gluten-Free section at Mint Basil Market for all the delicious snacks and treats you can dream of certified gluten-free!

If you have any questions regarding this topic, please do not hesitate to reach out.

May 20, 2021 — Mint Basil Team

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