Celiac disease is more prevalent than ever before, and symptoms often go undetected

Contributing columnistMay 16, 2014 

Celiac disease is an autoimmune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye and various processed foods. Over time, the reaction damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents absorption of some nutrients.

According to the Mayo Clinic, celiac disease is four times more common today than it was 60 years ago. When undetected, it can increase the risk for anemia, infertility, osteoporosis and cancer.

Classic signs of the disease include pain in the abdominal region, inflammation, constipation and diarrhea; however many people will experience atypical or no symptoms at all. Atypical symptoms include fatigue, headache and joint pain. Roughly 75 percent of children with celiac are unaware of the disease because they do not show symptoms of malnutrition and low weight.

Celiac disease screenings are not recommended for everyone, but testing is recommended when the patient also experiences abdominal pain, constipation or diarrhea, is diagnosed with ADHD, type 1 diabetes, suffers from iron deficiency anemia, or has a family member with celiac disease.

According to the American Journal of Medicine, to be diagnosed with celiac, three of the following indicators must be present: positive blood test, endoscopic biopsy, positive gene typing or strict adherence to a gluten free diet for one year leading to improvement of symptoms. Positive biopsy alone is sufficient for diagnosis.

Once diagnosed, there is no cure for celiac, but following a strict gluten-free diet can help manage symptoms associated with the disease. In addition to wheat, barley and rye, there are also a number of processed foods that contain gluten. Once gluten is removed from the diet, inflammation in the small intestine will decrease within several weeks or even days. Healing of the small intestine may take several months to several years.

Dr. Caresse Wesley is with KentuckyOne Health Primary Care Associates

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