May is National Celiac Disease Awareness Month

If it seems like you’re hearing more about gluten-free diets and celiac disease, you are. The condition is increasingly common.

According to a several recent studies reported in The American Journal of Gastroenterology, celiac disease is an increasingly common disease that affects 3.1 million Americans.

Celiac disease is an immune-based reaction to dietary gluten (a protein contained in wheat, barley, and rye), and is found primarily in people who have a known genetic predisposition. The only medically accepted treatment is to avoid foods that contain gluten.

There has been a substantial increase in the prevalence of celiac disease over the last 50 years and an increase in the rate of diagnosis in the last 10 years, especially in people in their 40s and 50s, the studies found. Celiac disease can cause many symptoms, including typical gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea, weight loss, bloating, flatulence, abdominal pain; and also non-gastrointestinal abnormalities including abnormal liver function tests, iron deficiency anemia, bone disease and skin disorders.

If you suspect that you or a family member may have Celiac disease, make an appointment to see one of GIA’s physicians who specialize in this area of medicine. However, do not begin a gluten-free diet before you see a physician. If you stop eating foods that contain gluten before being tested, the test results may not be accurate. Celiac disease is usually detected by testing for celiac-specific antibodies.

Adopting a gluten-free diet requires significant education and patient motivation. Gluten is difficult to avoid because it is found in many common food items, including breads, pastries, candy, cereal, condiments, cookies, pasta, pizza, many snack foods and soups. The good news is food manufacturers have begun producing many different varieties of gluten-free foods. For tips about adopting a gluten-free diet, read our previous blog post, “How to be Worry Free about Gluten Free.”

The rise in Celiac disease prevalence likely represents a combination of both increased diagnoses due to heightened awareness of the disease, as well as a true increase in cases. Celiac disease is more common in Caucasians, and almost 30 percent of the population carries the genetic predisposition. Indeed, many individuals with celiac disease may have no symptoms at all, and may never know they have the disorder. Because those tens of millions of people who carry the Celiac disease genes undoubtedly eat gluten without triggering it, researchers have theorized that other factors must be at work as well, such as immune dysfunction and environmental exposures that trigger the disease.

Apart from the well-established genetic predisposition, researchers hypothesize that increased prevalence of celiac disease may be related to environmental changes in cereal processing including wheat genetics, bread processing, and modification of wheat proteins from industry process changes.

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