Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition that can and does affect anyone. It is perhaps more common than many people think, affecting around one in 100 people, Coeliac UK estimates that only 24 per cent have been diagnosed.
It can cause symptoms ranging from discomfort to severe pain, so if you think you may be a sufferer, here's what you should look out for, and how to cope with the condition.
What is coeliac disease?
The condition is caused by the immune system reacting to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. In people with coeliac disease, the immune system reacts to gluten as though it were a threat and attacks the substance, damaging the lining of the small intestine and interfering with the body's ability to absorb nutrients from food. It is not known what causes the condition, but if an immediate family member already has the problem, your chances of also suffering are increased tenfold.
Symptoms of coeliac disease range from the very mild, which often go unnoticed, to the severe. The most common effect reported by sufferers is diarrhoea caused by the body not being able to properly absorb nutrients. This malabsorption can lead to unusually high levels of fat in the stools, which may be particularly foul smelling, greasy or frothy.
Other common symptoms include bloating or abdominal pain, flatulence, fatigue, headaches, mouth ulcers, anaemia, and sometimes sudden or unexpected weight loss. Some also develop a skin rash known as dermatitis herpetiformis, which appears as itchy blisters, typically but not exclusively on the elbows, knees and buttocks. An estimated one in five coeliac sufferers develop this additional problem.
What is the treatment?
If you think you may have coeliac disease, your GP will take a blood sample to test for the antibodies usually present in those with the condition. At this stage it is important that you don't try to avoid gluten in your diet as it will cause an inaccurate result. Should the blood test prove positive, you will likely be referred to a specialist who will perform a biopsy of the gut.
Sadly there is no cure for coeliac disease, and the only effective treatment is a gluten-free diet. With no gluten to upset the immune system, the symptoms will ease. Once on a gluten-free diet, the symptoms should improve significantly within a few weeks, though it may take as long as two years for your digestive system to completely heal.
Living a gluten-free life
Though it might seem daunting to begin with, a gluten-free diet isn't as bad as it sounds. There are many foods that are naturally free from gluten, and these days there is an ever-growing number of gluten-free products on supermarket shelves.
In the first instance, you should be referred to a dietitian who can help you to adjust to the new diet, advise you on what you can and can't eat, and ensure that you're eating a balanced diet containing all the necessary nutrients. As a basic rule, you will need to avoid bread, pasta, cereals, biscuits and crackers, cakes and pastries, pies, gravies and sauces. processed foods also often contain gluten in the additives so checking labels is a must. However, do look out for gluten-free alternatives to these as there are many more available now than there were a few years ago.
Naturally gluten-free foods include all types of rice, potato, corn, meat, fish, eggs and dairy, fruit, veg and pulses, so there is still plenty to get your teeth into that won't cause you the pain and discomfort of a coeliac attack, and won't damage your health further.
For more advice, information and support, visit www.coeliac.org.uk, where you can learn more about the condition or call the Coeliac UK helpline on 0845 305 2060.
Do you suffer with coeliac disease? Did you find it tough to cut out gluten? Leave your comments below...