It is September and that means it is the start of Celiac Disease Awareness Month. The disease is also known as celiac sprue, non-tropical sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy. The campaign not only focuses on educating the masses regarding celiac disease, but also raising support (particularly financial) for research into the illness. It is obviously essential to raise awareness about the disease all year round, but designating an entire month to it is more impactful with far-reaching benefits, as we devote all attention to those afflicted with the illness. This provides an avenue for all of us to work together because collectively, our voices are much louder than the few voices of medical practitioners.
So, what is celiac disease? This is an illness characterized by an allergy (abnormal excessive immune response by the body) upon oral intake of foods containing gluten such as wheat, rye, barley and other grains, which consequently damages the individual’s villi in the small intestine. Gluten may also be found in products such as vitamin supplements, medicines and lip balms. Therefore, it is critical that the affected persons review the contents of what they take to reduce the risk of aggravating the condition. Villi are normally essential for the absorption of nutrients, hence damage means the person becomes malnourished regardless of how much he/she consumes.
What causes celiac disease? The precise cause is not known but what appears to be common is that the disease arises from genetic derangements, meaning that it is hereditary hence runs in families. Having a 1st degree relative with the disease increases the risk by 10%. Other conditions posing as risk factors for having the disease include Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, autoimmune thyroid disease, Addison’s disease and type 1 diabetes. Infant-feeding practices, gastrointestinal infections and gut bacteria have been found to contribute as well. This is why research is key, so as to find the cause and effective treatment.
What are the symptoms of celiac disease? Scientists have observed that children are more likely to have digestive problems than adults. These include nausea and vomiting, chronic diarrhea, abdominal distension, constipation, flatulence/gas and pale stools which are foul-smelling. Due to the inability to absorb nutrients secondary to the aforementioned injury to the small intestine, the individual may also experience other symptoms. These include: failure to thrive among infants, short stature, weight loss, anemia (paleness, difficulty breathing etc.), weak teeth because of damage to the enamel, delayed puberty, seizures, poor muscle coordination and learning disabilities such as Attention-Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).
When should one see a doctor? Early diagnosis lowers the chance for developing similar conditions, with the risk increasing with age. If you experience the symptoms or have the risk factors mentioned above be sure to consult your doctor and get tested before switching to a gluten-free diet. Another indication for testing would be in case you have a first-degree relative diagnosed with the condition, because celiac disease tends to run in families. Untreated, celiac disease can complicate into: malnutrition which causes impaired growth and short stature, weak and soft bones which can fracture easily due to malabsorption of calcium, transient lactose intolerance, coronary artery disease (high risk for heart attack), cancers of the intestine such as intestinal lymphoma and small bowel cancer. Others include infertility and miscarriage, nervous system problems such as seizures, migraines and nerve disease (peripheral neuropathy) among others.
Is there treatment for the disease? Currently, the only treatment is life-long maintenance of a gluten-free diet which alleviates the symptoms for most people. Some people may take this approach but still experience symptoms (Non-responsive Celiac Disease) often due to cross-contamination of the diet with gluten (as little as one crumb). Therefore, safe food handling for the affected persons at home, restaurants and schools is paramount. It is our obligation to raise awareness about celiac disease, and to a greater degree this month, and carry on with educating others across the other months annually. Let us save lives!!