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The Celiac Section

All About Celiac Disease and Celiac Testing

Celiac testingPhoto: Thinkstock

Celiac disease, from the Latin word for “abdominal cavity,” occurs when the body rejects a protein called gluten, which is found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye. Gluten is present in much of the food we eat, often as an unexpected ingredient. It’s also in many products we use every day, from vitamins to medications and lip balms.

The disease is one of a group of conditions – including multiple sclerosis and type 1 diabetes – that are classified as “autoimmune” because the body’s immune system, which is supposed to guard it against outside pathogens such as infectious disease, turns on itself for some reason.

In the case of celiac disease, the immune system rings an alarm whenever gluten is detected, causing the lining of the small intestine to become inflamed and damaged. This blocks the digestive system from absorbing essential nutrients such as iron, folate and fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. Untreated, celiac disease can lead to malnutrition, sometimes severe, related health conditions, and certain cancers.

Who Has Celiac Disease?

Not so long ago in North America, celiac disease was frequently overlooked and its symptoms dismissed as little more than digestive issues. Family doctors often did not stray beyond obvious diagnostic profiles of bloating and diarrhea.

New research shows that many patients still make the rounds, from one doctor to another, for an average of 12 years before finding out what is wrong. But physician awareness is improving rapidly. In past, many patients were even told their problems were psychosomatic and resigned themselves to a lifetime of discomfort and worse.

Today, there are signs of change, bolstered by recent research shows that at least 1 per cent of the population in North America has celiac disease, a statistic that has increased fourfold from 50 years and only promises to get larger.

Experts aren’t sure why: Dr. Peter Green, the founder of the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University, speculates that it could be because gluten is present in more products than ever before, or it simply could have become more toxic to an increasing number of individuals over time.

Its fast rise may also be due to the fact that medical practitioners are now more knowledgeable about the conditions and willing to consider celiac disease as a diagnosis when faced with celiac’s array of symptoms. They also have more precise diagnostic tools at their disposal.

Celiac disease runs in families and once you have it, it’s for life. That doesn’t mean you are born with it. But you may have a predisposition that is suddenly triggered by an event, an accident, stress or another illness, for example. That could have occurred when you were 3 years old, or 13 or 30. All of a sudden, your immune system reacts strongly to gluten – and you must vigilant forever after about what you put into your body.

Next Page: Get Screened!

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Allergic Living acknowledges the assistance of the OMDC Magazine Fund, an initative of the Ontario Media Development Cooperation.