September 13th is National Celiac Disease Awareness Day. On this day we honor Dr. Samuel Gee, a British physician and pediatrician who published the first modern description of the clinical picture of celiac disease and identified the link between the disease and diet. Dr. Gee is famously quoted as saying “if the patient can be cured at all, it must be by means of diet.”
In the United States, approximately 3 million people have celiac disease; 21 million people have this disease or are sensitive to gluten. Of the 3 million who have this disease only 5% know they have it. This awareness event aims, in part, to make more people aware that they may have this disease and that by eating gluten free foods, they can eliminate their symptoms.
What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder whereby the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine. The small intestine is part of the gut which digests and absorbs nutrients from food. Once damaged, nutrient absorption is reduced and you become malnourished regardless of the amount of food you consume.
What are the symptoms?
Celiac symptoms vary in degree of severity. It is possible for a person to have no noticeable symptoms at all, however typical symptoms include:
- digestive problems (gas, bloating, belching, diarrhea, weight loss)
- severe skin rash
- muscle cramps, joint and bone pain
- growth problems and failure to thrive (in children)
- tingling sensation in legs
- sores in mouth
- irregular menstrual periods
What causes the disease?
Approximately eighty percent of your immune system resides in your gut. The body’s immune system is designed to protect itself from foreign invaders. When an individual with celiac disease consumes gluten, their immune system forms antibodies to the gluten and attacks the gut lining. This, in turn, causes inflammation that damages the intestinal lining and malabsorption of nutrients occurs.
Known factors that increase your risk of developing celiac disease:
- Family history – if you have a close relative with the condition, such as a parent or sibling, your chance of developing it is higher.
- Environmental factors – including an infection of the digestive system during early childhood play a part in the development of the disease.
- Other health conditions – type 1 diabetes, ulcerative colitis, and neurological disorders (those that affect the brain and nervous system, such as epilepsy).
How is celiac disease treated?
As previously mentioned, the treatment for this disease is very matter of fact; avoid all foods which contain gluten, including wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Once gluten has been eliminated from the diet, the intestinal lining is usually healed within six months. However, you’ll have to remain on a gluten-free diet for the rest of your life because any subsequent ingestion of gluten can damage your intestinal lining and restart the problem.