Coeliac disease is not just an annoying food intolerance! It’s vital that we diagnose this condition definitively and treat it seriously.
Written by Marnie Nitschke for We Feed You
Coeliac disease is a unique autoimmune condition that affects a surprisingly high percentage of the Australian population (about 1 in 70 of us). How would you know if you have it, and what would you need to do? Find out with our expert gastrointestinal dietitian, Marnie Nitschke.
Firstly, let’s understand exactly what coeliac disease is:
- Coeliac disease is a relatively common autoimmune condition occurring in around 1 in 70 Australians. While many of us (~40%) carry the genetic potential to develop coeliac disease, scientists are not yet sure what causes it to ‘switch on’ in some people. We do know that having a parent or sibling with coeliac disease puts you at a much higher risk, as does having other autoimmune conditions like type 1 diabetes or hashimotos. Importantly though, you can’t give yourself coeliac disease eating too much bread or pasta!
- Coeliac disease causes inflammation in the small intestine when gluten – found in wheat, rye, barley and oats - is consumed. Studies show that even very small doses of gluten (from cross contamination in processing, or crumbs on a cutting board) can be enough to cause ongoing inflammation for someone with coeliac disease. If left untreated, this inflammation can lead to nutrient deficiencies, uncomfortable gut symptoms, issues with bone health, mood and general wellbeing.
- Coeliac disease is not just an annoying food intolerance and is vastly different from gluten intolerance or wheat sensitivity. It’s vital that we diagnose this condition definitively and remove gluten completely, to allow the bowel to heal. At present, a lifelong gluten free (GF) diet is the only treatment we have for coeliac disease.
What are the symptoms of coeliac disease?
Symptoms of coeliac disease can vary widely, and may include:
- Nutrient deficiencies (e.g. iron, B12, folate, vitamin D)
- Gut symptoms like diarrhoea or constipation, bloating and pain
- Fatigue, headaches, aches and pains, poor immune function (getting sick often)
- Some people present with weight loss or bone density issues
Surprisingly, how sick you feel does not correspond to the degree of bowel damage. Some may have severe symptoms but minor damage, while others may be symptom-free but have extensive damage. Regardless of symptoms or severity, the gluten free diet still needs to be strict.
If you have any gastrointestinal symptoms, unexplained nutrient deficiencies, other autoimmune diseases, blood relatives with coeliac disease, or if you just don’t feel right, proper testing with your GP is recommended.
In part 2 we explore How to get tested for coeliac disease and the best places to get help! Read here>