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Celiac Disease: A Serious but Manageable Condition
By Nancy Kennedy


At the supermarket, the aisles seem to be filled with more and more products labeled “gluten-free.” Without a doubt, this is a trend within the food industry, in response to consumer demand for such products. But don’t assume that “gluten-free” is merely the latest food fad. Gluten intolerance, also known as celiac disease, is in fact a serious, life altering, chronic autoimmune disease that causes pain, diarrhea, weight loss, and anemia and can lead to major complications including permanent damage to the small intestine.

Gluten is found in numerous food products: bread, crackers, cereal, pasta, pizza crust and many others; it is also found in non-food products, including chewing gum, medicines, vitamins and lip balms. When a person has celiac disease, it means that they cannot digest and absorb gluten, the protein found in wheat, rye and barley.

If a person with celiac disease consumes these products, the immune system responds by destroying the villi – the tiny fingerlike projections all along the small intestine. This process damages the lining of the small intestine so that nutrients cannot be absorbed through the walls and into the bloodstream; instead they pass rapidly through the body and are expelled. As a result, the person becomes malnourished.

Symptoms of gluten intolerance include diarrhea, constipation, weight loss, fatigue, muscle weakness and dermatitis. As a result of the malnutrition that celiac disease causes, anemia, osteopenia, lactase deficiency may eventually develop. In children, growth and development can be delayed.

For Brenda Confer, celiac disease hit like a speeding train. “I got very sick very quickly,” she recalls. “It was four years ago. I had suddenly begun to feel exhausted, and then I developed severe diarrhea. I felt like I was dying – the pain was terrible, like shards of broken glass passing through my intestines. I lost fifteen pounds and ended up hospitalized, for IV fluids to rehydrate me. I was diagnosed by a gastroenterologist, who said my lab work was ‘off the charts’ – the diagnosis was celiac sprue.”

Brenda learned after her diagnosis that there were family members with the condition – a common finding, as celiac disease is a genetic disorder that runs in families. People who have a first-degree relative with celiac disease have a 10% chance of developing it. The onset can be triggered by severe stress, such as childbirth, surgery or emotional trauma.

Celiac disease is common, affecting 1 in 100 people worldwide. The Celiac Disease Association estimates that two and one-half million Americans are undiagnosed and therefore at risk for long term health problems. There is no cure for celiac disease, but once the diagnosis is confirmed, it can be treated, with strict adherence to a gluten free diet.

“Go gluten free,” says Brenda Confer. Following a gluten free diet helps manage the symptoms and allow healing of the injured small intestine. Although improvement for some will begin within a few weeks, for others it may take much longer.

 Confer, a wife and mother, says that she is vigilant about feeding her family healthy foods and monitoring them for any signs of food intolerance. She has had to learn to eat differently, avoiding the flours that contain gluten.

She believes that the transition has been somewhat easier for her, because she has a healthcare background, she enjoys cooking and has always cooked from scratch. “There are many options, and you learn to read labels and pay attention,” she says.

“There are cookbooks and very helpful web sites. It does take some effort, but it has made me much more aware of food and health. I miss Italian bread and pasta. But I am feeling so much better now!”



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