Coeliac Disease is traditionally seen as a rare disease affecting the intestine and during the 1980s was estimated to affect around 1 in 5000 individuals.
Recent data shows the incidence to be as high as 1 in 100, of whom only 25 per cent have been officially diagnosed. That leaves a massive half a million people in the UK who have not been diagnosed yet are suffering with the symptoms of Coeliac Disease.
What is Coeliac Disease?
Coeliac Disease is caused when our immune system attacks a protein called gluten which is found in wheat, barley and rye. This results in damage to the lining of the small intestine and means we are unable to effectively absorb nutrients from the food we eat. It should not be confused with Wheat Allergy which is caused by a reaction to the proteins in wheat and usually occurs within minutes of eating a food containing wheat.
What are the symptoms of Coeliac Disease?
The classic symptoms include bloating, diarrhoea, constipation, sudden weight loss, mouth ulcers, tiredness and headaches. However Health Care Professionals are becoming increasingly aware that individuals with Coeliac Disease may not have any of the above yet have suffered for years from non-classic symptoms such as iron deficiency anaemia, osteoporosis, unexplained infertility and delayed puberty. Research has shown that almost 25% of people with Coeliac Disease previously believed they had Irritable Bowel Syndrome before being properly diagnosed.
Who can develop Coeliac Disease?
It is not known exactly why some people develop the disease and it is thought to be a combination of genetic and environmental factors. There is evidence that introducing gluten into a babies diet before 3 months of age may increase the risk. Other contributing factors are a family history of Coeliac disease, Type 1 Diabetes (NOT Type 2) and other autoimmune disorders (eg underactive thyroid).
How is Coeliac Disease Diagnosed?
A blood test can detect the specific antibodies produced by the immune system in response to gluten if an individual has Coeliac Disease. Diagnosis is then usually confirmed by a biopsy which shows the resultant damage to the intestine. In children this biopsy may not always be necessary. It is really important that no treatment in the form of diet is introduced prior to the blood test or biopsy as this will almost certainly give a false negative result.
What is the treatment?
Effective treatment is a gluten free diet which if adhered to should eliminate all symptoms. Most people feel better after a couple of weeks though it can take up to two years for the intestine to completely return to normal. Gluten free foods include meat, fish, fruit, vegetables, rice, potatoes and pulses so it is still possible to maintain a balanced and interesting diet. Once diagnosed, individuals are entitled to obtain gluten free foods such as bread, flour and pasta on prescription.