Ten years ago most people never even heard of celiac disease. Now “gluten-free living” -- the only way to control this uncomfortable and sometimes painful gastrointestinal disease – is a way of life for an estimated 1 in 133 Americans.
Celiac is an auto-immune disease that is often likened to an allergy. The substance the body does not get along with is gluten, a protein commonly found in grains, including wheat, rye and barley. It causes a severe and chronic inflammation of the small intestines that results in a cascade of unpleasant side effects, such as bloating, gas and diarrhea.
It can also make food shopping and eating out unpleasant because gluten is as common in the American food system as, well, sliced bread.
Celia is a disease to be taken seriously because it harms the small intestines, making it difficult for the body to absorb life-supporting nutrients. Over the long term it can cause lethargy, weight loss and malnutrition.
Doctors are not sure why celiac is on the rise, but there is speculation it could be environmental. Some people may also have a genetic predisposition to the disease, says William D. Chey, M.D., director of the Gastrointestinal Physiology Laboratory at the University of Michigan Health System. It may also appear to be rising because doctors are getting better at diagnosing the condition.
“Awareness and proper diagnosis of celiac have improved dramatically in the last decade,” says Chey. “When I was a medical student many years ago, we were told that celiac disease occurred or could be found in approximately one in 500 or 1,000 individuals in the United States.” Now the estimate is one in 133.
Awareness has also heightened sensitivity from food packagers. Finding products marked “gluten free” is becoming more common. Even some restaurants are helping by noting menu items that are gluten free.
The symptoms of celiac disease are often the same vague digestive complaints that usually end up in a diagnosis of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). Chey recommends that people with a recent diagnosis of IBS get tested for celiac.
Celiac disease should not be taken lightly, Dr. Chey warns. People with long-standing, untreated celiac disease have an increased risk of developing cancer, primarily of the GI tract.
“They key takeaway is that celiac is more common than previously thought, that there are tests available to diagnose the condition and that treatment is highly effective and relies upon a diet rather than drugs,” says Chey.
Yost, D. Once rare digestive disease now striking 1 in 133 Americans. Retrieved February 20, 2009, from