Gluten-free diet is the only cure for celiac disease

Special to the Herald-LeaderJune 4, 2012 

What do Chelsea Clinton, Keith Olbermann, Drew Brees and Elizabeth Hasselbeck have in common?

They all have celiac disease.

Celiac disease affects about 1 percent of the U.S. population, but 97 percent don't know they have the disease. The prevalence of celiac disease has increased dramatically during the past 50 years.

Celiac disease is not a food allergy; it is an auto immune disease like diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis. People who have it cannot tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, rye and barley. Celiac disease damages the villi, the small fingerlike projections lining the small intestines that are responsible for the absorption of nutrients.

There are more than 200 signs and symptoms for celiac disease, including diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, abdominal distention, irritability, weight loss, vomiting, elevated liver enzymes, seizures, fatigue, delayed puberty, short stature, and dermatitis herpetiformis, a skin disease that causes a rash that burns and itches.

Diet is the only cure for celiac disease. All products derived from wheat, barley, rye and regular oats must be avoided. This can be difficult since there are many foods with "hidden" gluten. Untreated celiac disease can lead to problems related to absorption of nutrients, including anemia, osteoporosis, tooth enamel defects, central and peripheral nervous system disease, infertility and cancer.

Accurate diagnosis requires that the patient continue to consume foods with gluten before being tested. Testing for celiac disease includes a blood test to screen for presence of specific antibodies. A biopsy of the duodenum, the first part of the small bowel, is needed to make the final diagnosis. Both of these tests must be done before a person goes on a gluten-free diet.

People with celiac disease can lead normal, healthy lives by following a well-balanced, gluten-free diet. If you think you have celiac disease, talk with your physician. Because diet is the only cure and because the gluten-free lifestyle is difficult and emotional, finding a registered, licensed dietitian who has expertise in celiac disease is crucial if you are diagnosed.

Fran Bevins, is an outpatient dietitian with Central Baptist Hospital Outpatient Nutrition Services.

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