Strolling down the cereal aisle at the grocery store, you’ve probably noticed that some of your favorite cereals now boast that they are “gluten-free.” This may seem like food manufacturers taking advantage of another dietary fad, but the truth is that these companies are targeting a once-ignored market.
These customers looking for boxes of cereal, cookies and cake mixes with gluten-free labels are generally people who have celiac disease—a condition that damages the lining of the small intestine and prevents proper absorption of vitamins and minerals.
“Eating products containing wheat, barley, rye and possibly oats, creates an immunologic response,” said Scott & White gastroenterologist, Richard J. Dusold, MD, MPH. “This response causes patients have diarrhea because [vitamins and minerals like protein and fats] go unabsorbed and draw water into the large intestine.”
Because the patient cannot absorb necessary nutrients, they essentially become malnourished and can develop vitamin and other deficiencies.
What causes celiac disease?
There is no known cause for the disease, but there are several factors that can put patients at risk of developing the disease.
“[Celiac disease] is more common in people who are of European descent. Therefore, Caucasian people are more prone to it,” Dr. Dusold said.
Having a family member with celiac disease can also be a risk factor of the disease.
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
Along with a particularly foul-smelling diarrhea, patients may also experience:
- Abdominal pain
- Decreased appetite
- Nausea or vomiting
- Stools that float
- Unexplained weight loss
And because celiac disease prevents the patient from absorbing the vitamins and minerals they need for normal body function, some people may also experience fatigue, growth delays (in children), hair loss, muscle cramps and joint pain.
“The most common vitamin deficiency associated with celiac disease is Vitamin D deficiency, which can cause bone loss,” Dr. Dusold said. “There is also some association with iron deficiency and anemia.”
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
Patients with celiac disease often see their physician because of chronic diarrhea or abdominal cramping. These patients will most likely be screened for the disease using a blood test.
“The blood test is looking for that immune response that develops in response to gluten,” Dr. Dusold said. “You can check that through the blood work and see if certain antibodies are present, which are produced in people with celiac disease.”
If the blood test seems to point towards celiac disease, the physician will then order a biopsy of the small intestine to look for changes that can be seen under a microscope.
How is celiac disease treated?
“Treatment is really done through dietary manipulation,” the gastroenterologist said. “Products containing barley, wheat and rye really have to be eliminated from the patient’s diet. There’s pretty clear evidence that adhering to a strict gluten-free diet will alleviate celiac disease symptoms.”
When gluten-filled products are taken out of a person’s diet, the immune response has nothing to react against, allowing the intestine to heal and normalize.
Although it may seem like an easy fix to just stop eating gluten, Dr. Dusold it isn’t that simple.
“The diet is fairly complex because a lot of foods contain gluten,” he said. “There is a need for product and label reading. To truly eat a gluten-free diet requires a dramatic change in a person’s routine dietary habits.”
The gastroenterologist said that he’s seen some patients who have presumptively started eliminating some gluten from their diets because they believe they have celiac disease. However, Dr. Dusold said the best thing to do is talk to your doctor before cutting anything out of your diet.
“Discuss your symptoms with your primary care physician,” he said. “Some symptoms can be related to other things that aren’t celiac disease and could have quite a different treatment.”
Your physician will be able to order the proper tests and screenings to help determine what you are suffering from.
Click here for more information about celiac disease.
About the author
Jessa McClure holds a degree in journalism and mass communication from the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor in Belton, TX, where she is currently an adviser for student publications. She has been a writer in the health care field since 2009.