Going “gluten free” is currently a popular health trend. However, for some people, ditching gluten is actually integral for their ongoing health and wellbeing.
More than just gluten intolerance, coeliac disease is an auto-immune disorder that primarily affects the small intestine.
Coeliac disease is estimated to affect 1 in 70 people, however it is believed 80% of suffers remain undiagnosed. This is because the symptoms of coeliac disease are highly variable. Some people show no signs or symptoms, while others may suffer debilitating symptoms.
As coeliac disease has a genetic component, there is a 1 in 10 chance of an immediate family member also having the disease.
Symptoms of Coeliac Disease
Coeliac Australia list the symptoms as including one or more of the following:
- gastrointestinal symptoms e.g. diarrhoea, constipation, nausea, vomiting, flatulence, cramping, bloating, abdominal pain, steatorrhea
- fatigue, weakness and lethargy
- iron deficiency anaemia and/or other vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- failure to thrive or delayed puberty in children
- weight loss (although some people may gain weight)
- bone and joint pains
- recurrent mouth ulcers and/or swelling of mouth or tongue
- altered mental alertness and irritability
- skin rashes such as dermatitis herpetiformis
- easy bruising of the skin
These symptoms may occur simultaneously or at different times.
Diagnosis of Coeliac Disease
Coeliac disease is difficult to diagnose due to the variability of symptoms. Diagnosis will generally be made by a gastroenterologist through a combination of blood testing for antibodies, genetic screening and an endoscopy to undertake a biopsy of the small bowel. Other testing may be undertaken to identify any other associated conditions.
For diagnosis to be successful the patient must still be consuming a gluten diet to ensure there is not a false negative diagnosis. This is known as a “gluten challenge”.
For more information about diagnosing the disease in children read this factsheet from Coeliac Australia.
Treatment of Coeliac Disease
There is no cure for coeliac disease. The main treatment is adopting a gluten-free lifestyle.
Gluten is a protein found in wheat, spelt, rye, barley and oats. As such it can be found in a wide range of foods, medications and even personal products.
Consultation with a dietitian is beneficial and in Australia this may be subsidised through a Chronic Disease Management Plan, available through your GP. Look into local support organisations who can offer support, information and sometimes even discounts for gluten-free living.
Non-adherance to a gluten-free diet can increase risk of long-term complications of the disease such as intestinal cancer, osteoporosis and other auto-immune diseases.