You may have seen the name but unless you know of someone suffering from the disease, you probably have little knowledge about coeliac disease – even how to pronounce it! It is pronounced seeliac and it is sometimes spelt as celiac disease.
Basically it is an auto-immune disease caused by a reaction to gluten. Gluten is found in wheat, barley, rye and possibly oats and therefore is in a wide range of everyday foods. In our intestines we have areas called villi which help absorb nutrients. Coeliac disease causes a reaction to these villi, damaging them. This stops us from absorbing key nutrients from the food we eat and means a person can become malnourished however much food they eat.
Women seem to be affected more than men, and people who have a family member with the disease are more likely to develop coeliac disease themselves.
Because of the lack of absorption of key minerals, vitamins and other beneficial aspects of food, the disease can show itself in a number of different forms. This can make it difficult to diagnose. Symptoms can vary between abdominal pain and indigestion to constipation, decreased appetite, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Not everyone suffers from the same symptoms.
As the disease develops, other symptoms can occur such as bruising, hair loss, nose bleeds and itchy skin. The variation in symptoms really can be very confusing but today a lot more is known about coeliac disease and generally doctors are picking it up a lot earlier than they used to.
Diagnosing is assisted by increasingly reliable blood tests – doctors test your blood for high levels of anti-tissue transglutaminase antibodies (tTGA) or anti-endomysiuim antibodies (EMA). Sometimes other blood tests are also undertaken and a biopsy of the small intestine can also be undertaken to confirm a diagnosis.
The good news is that once it is identified, by avoiding gluten you can get better. Following a gluten-free diet means the villi in the lining of your intestines will heal themselves and hopefully the symptoms will disappear. Small intestines usually heal in three to six months after you stop eating gluten.
This is not as easy as it sounds because so many modern foodstuffs – and even drinks and medicines - contain gluten. However, today there are many normal branded products available that are gluten- free. To begin with, the new diet can appear very challenging, but once you find food that you like that you know is gluten free, then it all falls into place and most people continue with their lives without finding their new diet too difficult or time consuming.
Although your villi in the small intestines may have healed, this doesn’t mean the problem has gone away. Coeliac disease can’t be cured and if you start eating gluten again, then it is likely that the symptoms will re-occur.
Because celiac is now well-recognised, there are a number of support groups and programmes available for sufferers. For instance, Coeliac UK offers a wide range of information and support, their help line is 0845 305 2060 or you can find them on www.coeliac.org.uk
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