Celiac disease is a commonly misdiagnosed disease with symptoms that can range from migraines and irritability to joint pain and fatigue. Long considered a rare disease, celiac disease is the result of an autoimmune response to gluten in foods such as bread and other baked goods.
With more than 300 symptoms, celiac disease is extremely difficult to diagnose resulting in 95 percent of celiac patients receiving a misdiagnosis of other conditions. The average cost of misdiagnosis is $5,000-$12,000 per person, per year, not including lost work time. According to Peter H.R. Green, M.D., director of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, recent studies have shown that celiac disease affects approximately 1 percent of the U.S. population (about 1 in every 100 people – and 97 percent of them are undiagnosed). The trigger for celiac disease is the consumption of the protein called gluten, which wheat, rye, barley and other common foods possess. When someone with celiac disease ingests foods that contain gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the finger-like villi of the small intestine. When damage occurs to the villi, proper nutrients are not absorbed into the bloodstream, which can lead to malnourishment, vitamin deficiencies and other complications.
Diagnosing celiac disease can be quite difficult because the symptoms often mimic other diseases, such as chronic fatigue syndrome, diverticulosis, Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis. A person waits an average of six to 10 years before receiving a correct diagnosis, says Daniel Leffler, M.D., M.S., Celiac Center at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. A panel of specialized blood tests provides the most accurate diagnosis. If those tests indicate celiac disease, a doctor may perform a biopsy of the small intestine to confirm diagnosis of the level of damage to the villi, the tiny finger-like projections that protrude from the epithelial lining of the intestinal wall which absorb nutrients from ingested food particles.
No pharmaceutical cures exist at this time, for celiac disease. The only treatment for celiac disease is a lifelong adherence to a gluten-free diet. Eating foods containing gluten, no matter the portion size, can cause damage to the small intestine and other medical issues.
Despite the dietary restrictions of avoiding gluten, a celiac patient can enjoy well-balanced, delicious gluten-free meals. Even dining out can be accomplished with a little advance planning. Vigilant reading of food labels for ingredients containing gluten and open communication with wait staff about your needs will ensure you are maintaining a gluten-free diet. Increasingly, restaurants and grocery stores are accommodating the needs of the gluten-free community.
Many great resources, such as the National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, Gluten Intolerance Group of North America, celiac bloggers, books and magazines make the daunting task of a lifetime commitment to a gluten-free diet much easier.
Living a gluten-free lifestyle does not have to mean a life of restriction. There are many resources for managing celiac disease, tips for gluten-free baking and entertaining, and multitudes of other useful information - including new research and clinical trials for the advancement of possible celiac drugs and treatments. Maintaining a positive attitude and staying informed about available resources will allow you to live a healthy, vibrant life.
Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic, Peter H.R. Green, MD and Rory Jones
Dangerous Grains, James Braly, MD and Ron Hoggan, MA
NFCA: National Foundation for Celiac Awareness
Gluten Intolerance Group of North America
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