What is celiac disease and why is it on the rise?

Celiac disease is not a new condition but it is more prominent now than it has ever been. Despite it being so common, people are largely unaware of what the disease is. This ignorance contributes to the fact that it often goes undiagnosed for years.

This report from MSNBC details that celiac disease is four times more common now than it was in the 1950s. Even more shocking is the statistic that for every diagnosed case of celiac disease “there are 30 more” that go undiagnosed. Ignorance to the disease and the general nature of the symptoms often keep those suffering with it from the doctor’s office, leaving them to suffer in silence, an undiagnosed statistic.

Plain and simple: celiac disease is a sensitivity to gluten. Gluten, found in a large variety of foods, causes seriously uncomfortable symptoms in people that suffer from celiac disease. This is because celiac disease causes the immune system to wage a war against the ingested gluten. The battlefield of this war is the small intestine, leading to damage of the intestine and problems with nutrient absorption.

So, what are the common symptoms of this common disease? Well, part of the problem with the diagnosis of this disease is the fact that the symptoms are not unique to it. People who suffer from celiac disease may experience bloating, diarrhea, fatigue, weakness, weight loss, and other digestive distresses. Less obvious symptoms like those listed here at Mayo Clinic can make the disease even less detectable.

Diagnosis involves an in depth analysis of the patient’s symptoms and diet. A blood test can reveal if you have certain antibodies that are indicative of the disease. Often, when celiac disease is suspected, the doctor will perform an endoscopy, or an analysis of the small intestine using a small camera inserted through the rectum.

Post diagnosis, people who suffer from this disease will become extremely familiar with just how common gluten is, if they weren’t already. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley. Any foods containing these substances must be immediately eliminated from the diet once diagnosed with the disease in order to stop damage to the intestine and begin reversing the damage that was already done.

When you consider all of the food and supplement products that contain gluten, you begin to realize just how drastic of a change this is. Breads, pastas, chips, and even medications and some lip balms must be avoided. Symptoms of the disease will decrease with the dietary change but the damage to the small intestine takes longer to be undone.

Why the disease has seen such growth seems to be a mystery. One potential theory is that the modern obsession with cleanliness and living germ free has negatively affected our immune systems, causing an increase in all types of allergies. This same theory has been applied to many modern increases but has one flaw. According to one of the researchers, Dr. Alberto Rubio-Tapia, this same increase in the disease is being seen in developing countries.

The “why” of celiac may be largely unknown, but the fact remains that this misunderstood and under diagnosed disease is more common than many people think. With symptoms similar to other digestive conditions like IBS, people often miss the signs and suffer in silence when relief can be found with dietary changes. When you consider this is a common disease in adults as well as children, the need for education and awareness is obvious.

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