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If you have coeliac disease symptoms but are undiagnosed you might be experiencing stomach pains, diarrhoea and bloating that you can’t explain. Even if these experiences don’t cause you any long-term suffering, it is still a good idea to visit your medical professional and seek advice. Coeliac disease can have some unpleasant long-term consequences.
You might have heard about the symptoms of gluten intolerance and noticed a gluten-free section in the supermarket. This is because more and more people are being diagnosed with the condition as awareness and testing of it continue to grow. At present around 1 in 100 people in the UK live with coeliac disease to some extent.
Once diagnosed with the disease you will have to change your diet and avoid foods that contain gluten. In people with coeliac disease, the body attacks gluten in the small intestine and treats it as a harmful cell. This strips away the protective lining of the small intestine and makes it more difficult and painful to absorb nutrients.
Whether you have coeliac disease or you suspect that you might have it to some degree, this article is for you. In this article, you will find out exactly what coeliac disease is, what its symptoms are and how you can go about getting tested. It’s unfortunate if you have coeliac disease but today the world is more aware of the condition, making it easier to change your diet.
What is coeliac disease?
Coeliac disease – pronounced see-lee-ac – is an autoimmune disease that affects 1 in 100 people globally. The disease results from the body’s response to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. Coeliac disease is genetic and affects people of all ages; however, those over forty are more likely to be diagnosed with the coeliac condition.
The bodies of people with coeliac disease react to the presence of gluten in their system. An immune response is triggered which attacks the finger-like projections lining the small intestine (villi). These finger-like projections are responsible for the absorption of nutrients into the body, so when they are damaged it can lead to serious health risks.
The uptake of nutrients from hygienic food to promote health and wellness in the body is the least of the worries for people with coeliac disease. This condition can lead to greater risks of artery disease, small bowel cancers, Type I diabetes, skin conditions, infertility and neurological conditions.
How common is it in the UK?
Worldwide coeliac disease affects 1 in 100 people, which is about the same proportion as is found in the UK. Despite this, medical professionals think that more people go undiagnosed, especially those with a milder form of the condition that manifests as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). The condition is thought to be more prevalent in women than in men.
Testing for coeliac disease is not routine in the UK; normally only those with a family history of the condition will be tested. It’s important they are because coeliac disease is hereditary and can cause serious long-term health issues if left untreated. If someone has an underlying condition or their GP suspects they may be gluten intolerant, tests may be organised.
Identifying coeliac disease is a process of trial and error unless you have a family member with a diagnosis for the condition. In general, you will have to look out for diarrhoea, bloating and stomach aches after eating gluten-based foods. On average it takes 13 years for a coeliac diagnosis to be confirmed after the onset of symptoms.
What is the cause of coeliac disease?
People who suffer from coeliac disease may not always know they have the condition, especially if it is a mild form of gluten intolerance. Coeliac disease happens when the body has an adverse reaction to the presence of gluten and attacks the villi in the small intestine. This is an allergenic hazard, caused by the gluten found in bread, pasta, cereals and biscuits.
Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition. An autoimmune condition is when the body’s natural defences mistake healthy cells for harmful ones and create antibodies to fight them off. The result is an attack on healthy cells which causes many diseases and conditions. There are 80 types of autoimmune conditions – coeliac disease is one of them.
When someone with coeliac disease ingests gluten the body reacts, it sees gluten as a threat and produces antibodies against it. These antibodies attack the surface of the small intestine causing it to become red and swollen; this affects your diet, health and life quality.
How is the small intestine affected?
The small intestine makes up a vital part of the gut. In combination with the large intestine, it helps to digest food and absorb nutrients into the body. The small intestine is made up of three parts – the duodenum, the jejunum and the ileum. It is here the body onboards its vitamins, nutrients, fats and proteins.
The surface of the small intestine has small finger-like structures called villi that flatten the area and provide a soft absorbent area for nutrients to be taken into the body. In someone with coeliac disease, these villi structures are smaller and less effective since they are continually attacked by the body’s defences.
In short, coeliac disease prevents the small intestine from absorbing nutrients from ingested food and leads to symptoms of coeliac disease. The symptoms of this condition are far-ranging and depend on the severity of the disease. Mild forms might go unnoticed for many years while severe forms will cause diarrhoea, stomach pain and nausea.
What are the symptoms of coeliac disease?
- Diarrhoea: The most common symptom of coeliac disease is diarrhoea caused by the body’s inability to digest and ingest food in the small intestine.
- Constipation: Coeliac disease can cause constipation when the small intestine absorbs material from the stool and dries it out. Eating soluble fibre found in lentils, seeds and fruits can help.
- Nausea and vomiting: If you suffer from coeliac disease you may experience nausea and vomiting due to material in the small intestine that can’t be absorbed.
- Stomach pain: Coeliac disease is a gastrointestinal condition that causes a range of stomach related discomforts. These include bloating, nausea and stomach pain.
- Bloating: Bloating is caused by a build-up of gas in the stomach that causes you to feel full and inflates your stomach. It is a common symptom of gluten intolerance.
- Vitamin B12 deficiency: Most often associated with vegan diets, coeliac disease can also cause vitamin B12 deficiencies. This might result in yellow skin, a red tongue or mouth ulcers.
- Anaemia: Anaemia is an iron deficiency that causes fatigue, weakness, chest pains, and cold hands and feet. It’s caused by the body’s inability to absorb enough iron.
- Tiredness: This is a common symptom in those with coeliac disease because a lack of nutrients leads to malnourishment and a lack of energy.
- Unexpected weight loss: When your body cannot absorb nutrients correctly it leads to unexpected weight loss as you become more malnourished. This is a common symptom of coeliac disease.
- Mouth ulcers: If you have coeliac disease you might discover mouth ulcers. These are the result of vitamins lacking in the system and the onset of malnutrition.
How is coeliac disease diagnosed?
If you have symptoms of coeliac disease such as stomach pains, diarrhoea, constipation or bloating, it’s best to contact a medical professional to see if you need to be tested for the disease.
Testing is typically carried out via blood tests and a biopsy. One or the other might suffice. Remember that around 1 in 4 people with coeliac disease have previously been treated for irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) before a diagnosis of coeliac disease, so people with IBS should also be tested for coeliac disease as well.
A blood test is a simple routine way to assess the condition of your health. A blood test is carried out by a nurse who can take your blood sample in just a few minutes. The sample will then be sent for testing where medical professionals will determine the quality and content of the sample. With this, they can check for signs of coeliac disease.
Another common means of coeliac testing is a biopsy. A biopsy is usually a small sample of material taken from the intestines. This is then tested in a lab. In the case of coeliac disease an endoscope – a thin flexible tube – is put into the mouth and sent down to the small intestine. The endoscope has a camera on the end which allows the doctor to investigate the area for signs of coeliac disease.
What are the treatments for coeliac disease?
The best and most effective treatment for coeliac disease is a gluten-free diet. Since gluten is the substance that attacks the lining of the small intestine it must be cut out of the diet completely to avoid any unpleasant symptoms. This is bad news if you love foods like bread, pasta and grains.
Unfortunately, the treatment for coeliac disease is a change in diet for life. If someone with the condition chooses to eat foods containing gluten their symptoms will quickly return. On the other hand, changing your diet will alleviate them and allow your digestive tract to heal. It can take up to two years for your intestines to fully heal depending on the severity of your condition.
A gluten-free diet
Once you’ve been diagnosed with coeliac disease you will have to change your diet right away. This might involve an appointment with a dietician to work out the most suitable and most nutritional diet for your lifestyle. After you have been diagnosed you will no longer be able to eat gluten-based foods.
Someone with coeliac disease can’t handle even a small amount of gluten without having some very unpleasant symptoms. The good news is that gluten is a non-essential food. It is a protein that can be easily replaced with other basic food sources like meat, vegetables, fish and dairy. There are also some excellent gluten-free options on supermarket shelves these days.
What food cannot be consumed?
When you have coeliac disease you need to be extra careful about the food you consume. Some food is strictly off the menu such as bread, pasta and cereal; other foods may only contain trace amounts of gluten but those must also be checked as even a small amount of gluten protein can cause issues.
If you have coeliac disease stay away from the foods below:
Although these foods should be avoided at all costs for someone with coeliac disease, there are gluten-free versions available. In big brand supermarkets, you will find the gluten-free section beside the vegan section. Usually, you can buy grains and pasta that don’t contain any gluten.
The above foods are ones you can’t eat unless they are gluten-free, but that still leaves a host of other foods that are completely fine for gluten intolerant people to eat. The majority of dairy products such as cheese, butter and milk are okay for coeliacs to eat; as are, fruit and vegetables, meat and fish, potatoes, rice, gluten-free noodles and gluten-free flour.
Coeliac disease is more common in the UK than it once was, partly because there is more awareness about the condition, and partly because there are better ways to test for it. At present, coeliac disease symptoms affect around 1 in 100 people in the UK. These figures are also mirrored on a global scale.
Coeliac disease is a form of gluten intolerance that varies in degree depending on the severity of the condition. It is an autoimmune disease which means the body’s immune system mistakes a process in the body for bacteria and viruses and creates antibodies against it. In the case of coeliac disease, this means the body attacks the finger-like villi structures of the small intestine.
If you have coeliac disease you will experience symptoms of gluten intolerance like stomach pains, nausea, diarrhoea, constipation, bloating, and more. You may be mystified at first as to why you experience these symptoms but after testing and diagnoses by a medical professional it will start to make more sense and you can begin to redesign your diet.
When you are diagnosed with coeliac disease you must switch to a gluten-free diet. Avoid food allergens like cereals, grains and bread in favour of meat, dairy, fish and vegetables; these will suitably replace the protein you need. With the rise of gluten intolerance in the UK and elsewhere, supermarkets have become more sensitive to these dietary needs. Always check the food allergen labelling.