Celiac Disease 101

 "You have celiac disease," your doctor finally diagnoses you after months, maybe years of insufferable periods of abdomen pain and embarrassing trips to the bathroom,

What? What is Celiac Disease? you wonder. Is it contagious? Life-threatening? Who else has it? Many questions may plague your mind, but your doctor and research can ease your anxiety with a through explanation of the incurable disease.

Celiac disease, or CD, is not contagious, but it can be hereditary. It is an autoimmune disorder where the body mistakenly reacts to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, as if it were poison ingested. When gluten is consumed by someone with CD, the gluten in the immune system reacts by destroying the part of the small intestine that absorbs vital nutrients. This can develop into long-term complications the longer a person goes undiagnosed or untreated such as malnutrition, lymphoma, osteoporosis, neurological complications and miscarriage. But treatment is easily attainable and the damage can be reversible.

Once a patient is properly diagnosed by a series of tests, such as a blood test followed by a biopsy of the small bowel to detect damage to the lining, then immediate treatment of a strict gluten-free diet is proscribed. A gluten-free diet is a lifetime commitment. Visit a dietitian who can teach you about food selection, label reading and other ways to manage CD. When gluten is abstained, the healing of the small intestine begins and a return to full health can be expected.

Celiac Disease is not rare. Surprisingly, one in 133 are affected, but most have not been diagnosed because they were told their symptoms were either IBS (irritable bowel syndrome) or related to food intolerances. If you have a first-degree relative, parent, sibling or child diagnosed with CD, you have 1 and 22 chance of having the disease. The symptoms of CD vary from person to person but are often manifested in bloating, gas, diarrhea, weight loss or gain, constant fatigue or weakness, headaches, infertility, depression in spite of medication, abdominal pain, bone pain and anemia. In many children, symptoms may include failure to thrive, short stature distended abdomen, dental enamel defects and unusual behavior changes.

Once the patient accepts the diagnosis and the treatment, the most difficult process is eliminating gluten completely from the diet. But once you feel your health improve, sticking to the diet is well-worth the struggle. Find gluten-free cookbooks that appeal to everyone in the family and visit support groups in your community or online. Educating yourself and family members is the first step to accepting CD as a new way of life, not an obstacle to overcome.    

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