For those of you who have not hopped aboard the gluten-free bandwagon and are therefore unfamiliar with celiac disease, this condition is fueled by the rise of gluten in our diet. Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder where the ingestion of gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, damages the small intestine. According to the Celiac Disease Foundation, an estimated 1 in 100 people are affected by this disease, and in addition to that number about 2.5 million Americans go undiagnosed every year. Unfortunately, the rates of celiac disease are on the rise, and the hot topic for experts today is why.
The rapid growth rate of celiac disease has led to the promotion of awareness for gluten-intolerant conditions. Celiac disease is a hereditary disorder. If someone in your immediate family has been diagnosed (like your mother, sister, brother, etc.), then you have a 10 percent chance of developing it yourself. When someone with celiac disease consumes gluten the immune system reacts by attacking the small intestine. These attacks ultimately damage tiny tendril-like projections that exist within the small intestine, called villi. Villi are essential to digestion because they promote nutrient absorption, and when they are impaired key nutrients cannot be absorbed by the body.
Unfortunately, diagnosing celiac disease can be difficult and time-consuming. First comes the tedious task of identifying any symptoms that might suggest you are, indeed, gluten-intolerant. To make matters worse, symptoms can vary greatly from person-to-person, and in some cases patients don't even present any signs! There are an estimated 300 known symptoms of celiac disease including, but not limited to: (via Celiac Disease Foundation)
- Abdominal bloating and pain
- Chronic diarrhea
- Weight loss
- Irritability and behavioral issues
- Dental enamel defects of the permanent teeth
- Delayed growth and puberty
- Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
Since there is no tried-and-true test to diagnose the disease, treatment options revolve around diet. Treating celiac disease requires a life-long commitment to a gluten-free diet. If an individual does not completely eliminate gluten from their food, they can trigger severe reactions. Even ingesting trace amounts of gluten, like eating food that wasn't prepared in a gluten-free environment, can lead to symptoms. Without treatment, celiac disease can lead to a variety of long-term health complications such as: (via Celiac Disease Foundation)
- Iron deficiency anemia
- Early onset osteoporosis or osteopenia
- Infertility and miscarriage
- Lactose intolerance
- Vitamin and mineral deficiencies
- Central and peripheral nervous system disorders
- Pancreatic insufficiency
- Intestinal lymphomas and other GI cancers (malignancies)
- Gall bladder malfunction
- Neurological manifestations, including ataxia, epileptic seizures, dementia, migraine, neuropathy, myopathy and multifocal leucoencephalopathy
So what, exactly, is causing celiac disease rates to spike so much? In the last 50 years, experts have discovered that it is not merely a case of increased awareness; there is definitely a growth in prevalence. Professionals believe that these spikes are due to two factors, both of which affect our environment. The first factor is the increase of grain in food. The wheat that we eat today is very different than the stuff that people consumed 50 years ago. It undergoes extensive hybridization, and the effects of these chemical processes have the potential to damage our immune systems. Researchers have only begun to comprehend how our bodies react to the chemical alterations in wheat.
The second factor is what many refer to as the "hygiene hypothesis." This theory claims that our increasingly clean environment no longer allows our immune systems to be exposed to bacteria and other infectious agents that used to be commonplace. While this may sound like a good thing, it means that our immune systems cannot develop any kind of tolerance or immunity to those germs. Infants and children born in recent years are more susceptible to celiac disease because the immune system just cannot combat it.
If you believe that you or someone in your family is at risk for gluten intolerance, we highly recommend that you contact your doctor for more information. You can also check out our sources to learn more about the rise of celiac disease: Celiac Disease Awareness Campaign, Celiac Disease Foundation, National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases.