Celiac Disease: Do You Need to Go Gluten Free?

Life-threatening wheat intolerance is more common than thought

From a big bowl of pasta to a warm, thick-crusted baguette, most women (and many men, too) have a deep love for starchy bread products. But to some, wheat is the enemy -- and not because they’re trying to drop 20 pounds on some restrictive, zero-carb diet. It’s because they have celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder where eating gluten -- a protein found in wheat, barley and rye -- causes the immune system to attack itself which can lead to serious damage to the intestines. Celiac disease interferes with nutrient absorption and may lead to complications including osteoporosis, anemia and cancer.

Once thought to be a rare condition that people are born with, celiac disease is actually much more widespread and it can occur at any age. A new study from the University of Maryland School of Medicine's Center for Celiac Research reports that cases of celiac disease have doubled every 15 years since 1974, especially among older people. Previous research cited in the study suggests celiac disease is two-and-a-half times more common in the elderly -- meaning, even if you’ve been eating wheat your entire life, you could still develop celiac disease in your later years.

The condition is not something to be taken lightly. According to a Mayo Clinic study published in the journal Gastroenterology, people with undiagnosed celiac disease who continue to eat wheat are four times more likely to die from all causes than celiacs who are on a gluten-free diet.

Signs of celiac disease can include diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain, iron-deficiency, fatigue, bone or joint pain, depression, anxiety, numbness and tingling in the hands and feet, canker sores or missed periods.

Because its symptoms are so wide and varied, celiac disease can be confused with a host of other health problems, such as irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), iron-deficiency anemia, inflammatory bowel disease, diverticulitis, intestinal infections and chronic fatigue syndrome. Some research indicates that as many as 10 percent of people with IBS may have undiagnosed celiac disease. Luckily, celiac disease can be diagnosed with a simple blood test. If you have undiagnosed intestinal distress, talk to your doctor about getting tested. While you may want to experiment with a gluten-free diet on your own to see if it improves your symptoms, celiac disease can be life-threatening and should be properly diagnosed. You can't be on a gluten-free diet at the time of your blood test for a correct diagnosis.

Have you ever experimented with a gluten-free diet? Chime in below.

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