One or the most remarkable facts about celiac — the autoimmune reaction to the gluten in wheat, barley and rye — is the stunningly wide range of problems it can cause. The list of difficulties linked to celiac includes not only digestive discomfort but things like nerve damage, dementia, thyroid disorders, diabetes and nutrient deficiencies. Celiac is a many-headed health monster.
Traditionally, the medical community has considered celiac to be a digestive disease. Symptoms like bloating, diarrhea, stomach pain and intestinal gas were believed to be the main signs that your body was experiencing physiological complications related to gluten. However, more recently, researchers have begun to recognize that gluten’s harmful effects are not always restricted to digestion. It is that fact that can make celiac such an insidious disease.
For example, if you began to unexpectedly suffer nerve damage and/or brain fog (as I once did), chances are you wouldn’t initially suspect that the bread you eat every day might be the cause of your condition. And, chances are, if you went to seek medical help, your doctor wouldn’t suspect it either.
Still, the gluten in bread can wreak havoc with your nerves and interfere with your thinking if you have celiac. I had to follow a gluten-free diet (no cookies, cake, bread, pizza, crackers, etc.) to emerge from devastating mental murkiness.
Once gluten enters the body of somebody sensitive to gluten, it causes the immune system to attack. Unfortunately, this attack is on the body itself and it can take many forms that may not seem related to food. Consequently, experts frequently recommend that you be tested for celiac if you suffer any of these:1
- Continuing digestive problems like bloating, stomach pain, unexplained diarrhea or intestinal gas.
- Irritable bowel syndrome.
- Weight loss that is unexplained.
- Neurological disorders such as peripheral neuropathy (nerve pain) and ataxia (uncoordinated walking and loss of muscle control).
- Unexplained deficiencies of vitamins or minerals.
- Iron deficiency anemia.
- Osteoporosis (weak, demineralized bones).
- Unexplained, persistent fatigue.
- Elevations in tests of liver function.
- Type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease and other autoimmune problems.
- Parents, brothers or sisters with celiac.
Gluten Can Make You Infertile
Also disturbing is the fact that celiac disease can be an unrecognized cause of infertility in women. Studies in Finland, Italy and the Middle East2 have found that up to 8 percent of women who are infertile may suffer from celiac disease. In addition, in young girls, celiac can cause delayed menstruation. And celiac has been connected to spontaneous abortions in pregnant women and early menopause.3
Another troubling characteristic of celiac is that you can develop it at any age, and the medical community is not always alert to the many ways it can destroy health. Consequently, research shows it usually takes about 10 years for the average adult with celiac to be correctly diagnosed with the condition by a doctor. This may be changing because celiac is receiving more widespread attention.
If you think you might be suffering from celiac, a simple blood test is now available that shows whether you have the condition. In the past, experts believed that you needed to have a biopsy done on your intestinal tract to see if sections of the intestinal wall were being destroyed by your reaction to gluten. But this is generally no longer considered necessary.
For those with celiac or gluten-sensitivity, the only treatment for the condition is a lifelong gluten-free diet. That means taking wheat, barley and rye out of your meals and eliminating foods made with these grains. For folks who think they can’t live without items like toast, pasta, cookies and pizza, gluten-free forms of these foods can be bought, although they generally aren’t cheap. For myself, I prefer to stick to fruits, vegetables, beans, meat and nuts and skip the gluten-free snack foods. Though, I admit, I’m a sucker for gluten-free chocolate.
2 Shamaly H, Mahameed A, Sharony A, et al. Infertility and celiac disease: do we need more than one serological marker? Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2004;83:1184 — 1188
3 Ferguson R, Holmes GK, Cooke WT. Coeliac disease: fertility and pregnancy. Scand J Gastroenterol. 1982;17(1):65 — 68