Coeliac disease effects 1% of the Irish population, yet many people remain undiagnosed because they don’t complain of the “typical” tummy symptoms. Studies suggest that for every case of coeliac disease that is medically diagnosed because of noticeable symptoms, another eight cases go undetected.
Coeliac disease is an auto-immune reaction to the protein gluten, typically is considered a gastro – intestinal condition. The gluten found in foods such as breads, pasta, sauces, liquorice and many other foods damages part of the small bowel in the digestive tract. This damage prevents the body from absorbing essential nutrients and energy from food which leads to malnutrition. Low iron as a result of poor absorption for example can cause fatigue, poor calcium and vitamin D can lead to osteoporosis and even bone fractures. The classic abdominal complaints include constipation, diarrhoea, flatulence, bloating, tummy pain and indigestion represent only a fraction of the possible symptoms that can emerge.
Non-typical symptoms include; Balance problems,Bone or joint pain, Chronic fatigue, Dental enamel problems, Depression, Discoloured teeth or enamel problems, Dry eyes, Failure to grow, Fatigue, Infertility, Irritability, Lactose intolerance, Memory problems, Menstrual problems, Migraines, Mouth sores and ulcers (canker sores), Skin problems and rashes, Tingling or numbness in hands and feet and sometimes Unexplained weight loss. Dermatitis herpetiformis- an itchy, blistering rash usually seen on the body is one skin condition that responds extremely well to a gluten-free diet. Many people with dermatitis herpetiformis have no tummy symptoms, although biopsy results often shows intestinal damage associated with coeliac disease.
Coeliac disease is more prevalent than the general population in people who suffer from other autoimmune conditions, such as rheumatoid arthritis, Type 1 Diabetes, Addison’s disease, Sjögren’s syndrome and autoimmune thyroid disease, occur more frequently in those with coeliac disease than in the general population. Individuals with Down syndrome are at an elevated risk of developing coeliac disease also.
Currently, coeliac disease can be diagnosed with a blood test to
determine if coeliac antibodies are present within the immune system. A biopsy
of the small intestine is usually performed to confirm the diagnosis.
The only treatment is a lifelong completely gluten-free diet e.g. avoid normal bread and pasta and consume special gluten free alternatives. Gluten can hide e.g. in medications, communion wafers, bouillon cubes, deli sliced meat and avoiding these is imperative for all coeliacs. Most people notice improvement in symptoms within days of starting the diet, although it may take 18 months for the intestines to completely heal in adults. Consuming even a tiny amount of gluten can damage the small intestine which many Coeliacs find difficult to comprehend.
The long-term consequences to non-compliance can be quite serious. Left untreated, coeliac disease can lead to severe complications and nutritional deficiencies – Infertility, miscarriages, osteoporosis and even bone fractures. If a gluten free diet is ignored or not followed correctly, there is a risk of serious liver disease and digestive cancers. Dietitians are uniquely trained to advise how to practically follow a well-balanced and healthy gluten free diet. If you think you may be a coeliac, the first port of call however is an appointment with your GP.