The Rise of Celiac Disease: What You Should Know
- New research shows celiac disease is on the rise. In fact, it’s four times more prevalent than it was in 1950, and there are estimates that one percent of the American population has it.
- If you have constant stomach issues, talk to your doctor, and don’t rush to self-diagnose.
- Celiac disease is a lifelong condition and requires a good relationship with your doctor.
There sure are a lot of people talking about gluten.
Gluten is a protein in wheat that, among other things, is the main culprit in celiac disease, an immune reaction that can cause chronic diarrhea and leave sufferers exhausted. New research shows that all this gluten talk isn’t just your imagination – Celiac sease is on the rise. In fact, it’s four times more prevalent than it was in 1950, and there are estimates that one percent of the American population has it.
The most interesting recent survey focused on military personnel – a population that is considered to be in good health. The study showed that celiac disease has skyrocketed in the military; five times as many people had it in 2008 when compared to 1999 statistics.
The big question is why? There are multiple theories, but no clear-cut answer. Some folks think (logically) that it’s a combination of genetics and the environment. Could it be that we’re too hygienic – that modern society has become so sanitized that our immune systems can’t handle threats that it once would’ve been able to ward off? Or is it that gluten has changed (and it has, due largely to the engineering of wheat to create a more robust crop) in a way that our bodies can’t handle?
John Seedor, M.D.
John Seedor, M.D., chief of the Section of Gastroenterology at Taylor Hospital, says, “Gluten is a component found in the seeds of wheat and other grains, such as barley and rye. It is a thickening agent and used mostly in processed foods. Fifty years ago, homes were cooking meals from scratch. But now, many things families prepare are processed. Celiac disease develops when the individual has a heightened sensitivity to the breakdown of gluten and cannot absorb nutrients.”
Mark Jacobs, M.D., chief of the Section of Gastroenterology at Delaware County Memorial Hospital, says that testing and diagnosis may also be a factor. “More than three million people have the disease. Testing and diagnosing celiac disease is much easier than it has been in the past. In addition, there is more awareness of celiac disease; more people know about the condition and symptoms to look for. You would be surprised at how common it is, as much as diabetes or asthma,” he says.
There are a lot of people – some who have gluten sensitivity and some who don’t – who are choosing to go with a gluten-free diet. And while it can help people with gluten sensitivity, there’s a danger of it becoming a fad diet; you hear about celebrities and athletes dropping weight and how they’ve never felt better. Gluten-free foods may actually be higher in calories and weight loss has not been proven. It is important to work with your physician before you change your diet drastically.
Celiac disease robs the body of vital nutrients; people who have it are at increased risk for anemia and osteoporosis. People who have celiac disease and don’t eat a gluten-free diet also face a higher threat of bowel cancer and intestinal lymphoma.
“Common warning signs of celiac disease are abdominal pain, bloating, gassiness, diarrhea, constipation, lactose intolerance, nausea and fatigue. It can also mimic irritable bowel syndrome,” Seedor says.
So, if you have seemingly constant stomach issues, talk to your doctor, and don’t rush to self-diagnose. You might cause more harm than good.
But, as with any diet, you need to be cautious about dramatically changing what you eat. Embracing gluten-free foods can leave you with a lack of fiber and key vitamins. You also might suddenly be eating gluten-free pizzas and donuts that are loaded with refined sugars – not the healthiest things to be putting in your body.
“Celiac disease can present very differently in every patient. If not treated, it can cause a multitude of medical problems. It is important to work with your physician and a registered dietitian,” says Immanuel K. Ho, M.D., FACP, FASGE, FACG, chief of the Division of Gastroenterology and Hepatology at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. “Celiac disease is a lifelong condition like asthma and requires a good relationship with your doctor,” he says.
To find a Crozer-Keystone gastroenterologist, call 1-877-CKHS-GI1 (1-877-254-7441) or visit http://gi.crozerkeystone.org. For information about services at Crozer-Keystone or to find a physician, call 1-800-CK-HEALTH (1-800-254-3258) or visit www.crozerkeystone.org.