Coeliac Disease – What You Need to Know
There is an increasing amount of awareness around coeliac disease. However, many people still misunderstand the condition. Here are 6 things that you need to know about coeliac disease.
Coeliac Disease is an Abnormal Response to Gluten
Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, rye, barley and oats. When a person with coeliac disease ingests this protein, their immune system over-reacts, damaging the small bowel. The bowel is lined with tiny, finger-like villi that help absorb nutrients from food. When a coeliac eats gluten, the villi become inflamed and flattened, which reduces the surface area of the bowel and therefore reduces the surface area available for nutrient absorption. Symptoms relating to inflammation can also occur in other parts of the body.
All Types of People Can Have Coeliac
Coeliac disease affects people of all ages, both male and female. You must be born with certain genes to develop coeliac disease, although it is often triggered by environmental factors. If you have a close relative with coeliac disease, you have a 10% chance of having it yourself. Coeliac disease affects around 1 in 70 Australians.
You Could Have Coeliac Disease and Not Know It
While approximately 1 in 70 Australians have coeliac disease, around 80% of them remain undiagnosed. That means the majority of people who have it haven’t ever been diagnosed. There are more cases diagnosed in recent years – partially because our awareness and rates of detection are increasing, but also because there is an actual rise in the number of people who have the disease.
Tests Can Confirm Your Diagnosis
Many people with coeliac disease are aware that something is not right with their bodies, but they may not know what the problem is. Some people feel very unwell, while others don’t have symptoms. Some common signs of coeliac disease are:
- Feeling unwell after eating gluten
- Problems with growth
- Constipation and/or diarrhoea
- Stomach pain
- Mouth issues
- Problems with fertility
- Unexplained weight loss
- Other general symptoms, such as joint pain, headaches and irritability
If you suspect you might have coeliac disease, the first step is to go to your doctor. They will arrange for you to have tests. Do not stop eating food with gluten – if you do, it could produce a false-negative result. Firstly you will receive a blood test. The next step to confirm the diagnosis is an endoscopy.
There’s No Cure, But It Can Be Managed
As far as we know, someone who is diagnosed with coeliac disease will need to avoid gluten for the rest of their lives. However, managing coeliac disease is as simple (and complicated) as avoiding gluten. Strict avoidance of products containing gluten lets the small bowel lining heal. Gluten can be found in a daunting number of products in some form – obvious choices like bread and pasta made with wheat are out, and some tricky ingredients like some types of soy sauce and other flavourings make other products unsafe.
Products in Australia are required to disclose any gluten-containing ingredients. If you have been newly diagnosed with coeliac disease it can be daunting when you realise how many modern products include gluten. The easiest way to approach your new diet is to start simply and get more complicated as you find substitutes for your regular ingredients. Meals that contain basic ingredients like meat and vegetables will be gluten free (but pay close attention to any sauce or flavouring). From that point, you can begin to make your meals more complicated – just be sure to read the labels on everything so you can be sure they are free from gluten.
There Are Consequences For Undiagnosed Coeliacs
If someone has coeliac disease that goes untreated, they are subjecting their system to years of chronic inflammation, poor nutrition and malabsorption of nutrients. There are a wide range of very serious complications that can occur as a result of undiagnosed, unmanaged coeliac disease.
Seeing a doctor is the first step in getting a diagnosis. Without good management, coeliac disease can have serious long and short term consequences. By working with your doctor, you can help reduce your risks of further complications and enjoy the benefits of healthier living.