Celiac disease may be the cause of many undiagnosable illnesses
When Andre H. Lagrange, a neurologist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, saw the ominous white spots on the patient’s brain scan, he considered infection or lymphoma, a type of cancer. But tests ruled out both and anti-epilepsy drugs failed to halt the seizures. However, he thought about the patient’s mother who said that constipation and diarrhea came with the seizures.
On a hunch Dr. Lagrange arranged for antibody tests and an intestinal biopsy which indicated the presence of celiac disease, an auto-immune disorder of the gut triggered by the gluten proteins in wheat and other grains. Once he put the patient on a gluten-free diet, the seizures stopped and the brain lesions disappeared.
In another case, a young boy, an excellent student and athlete had a virus that kept reoccurring and sending him to bed for a week at a time. At one point it became so bad that he developed severe headaches, vomited violently after meals, lost weight and eventually could not walk without aid; he had to be carried to the bathroom.
While in the hospital, every test was negative until a paediatric immunologist tested him for celiac disease. The positive test was confirmed with a second intestinal biopsy and he began a strict gluten-free diet. He is now in recovery and is growing normally and is on the road to health as long as he sticks to the strict gluten-free diet.
Gluten is a protein in grains such as wheat, rye and barley that contain gliadin peptides. In people with celiac disease these can trigger an auto-immune reaction that damages the villi, tiny hair-like projections lining the small intestine that absorb nutrients from food into the body. People with celiac disease must avoid wheat, rye, or barley, or any of the thousands of products or ingredients made from these grains. Some must also abstain from oats.
Because the basic nutrients from your food are not absorbed, the body is deficient in vitamins, minerals, electrolytes and almost everything it needs to function. That is why so many diseases, from mental disorders, seizures, hallucinations, psychotic breaks and even Autism can sometimes be linked to celiac disease. In the same way that this young boy’s virus was caused by celiac, it is becoming more and more important to test for this disease when, in spite of the symptoms, a positive diagnosis cannot be made.
The disease runs in families. First-degree relatives of someone with celiac disease should also be tested for it, even if they have no symptoms. Some physicians think even 2nd degree relatives should be tested.
Celiac disease is now five times more common that it was fifty years ago. It affects one in one hundred Caucasians but is a lot less common in other racial groups.
There are many theories as to what is responsible for the rise of this disease, from overzealous cleanliness being linked to a rise in auto-immune disease to how grains are genetically modified or on the overreliance on formula to feed infants.
Celiac disease usually shows up in childhood but can occur any time for people of all ages. Unfortunately the majority of people with celiac disease are undiagnosed. They live their lives developing a host of debilitating, sometimes fatal complications, including cancer because they are eating gluten.
As I have pointed out with the two examples, the symptoms of celiac disease can be so wide-ranging, from severe mental disorders and seizures to viral infections that cause an ability to walk, most of the symptoms are either ignored or attributed to another disease. It is so easy to just lump it into a general category like IBS (irritable bowel disease) or just call it a food allergy.
If you are lucky, you will have abdominal pain and bloating and the symptoms will immediately point to a test and a quick result. However, because of the lack of nutrients being absorbed by your body, your symptoms may include, chronic or intermittent diarrhea or constipation; vomiting; loss of appetite; weight loss; or, in children, growth failure; iron deficiency anemia; loss of dental enamel; mouth ulcers; arthritis and joint pain; bone loss and fractures; delayed puberty; unexplained infertility and miscarriage; recurring headaches and possibly seizures; loss of feeling in hands and feet; depression; hallucinations, anxiety and panic attacks.
Physicians have to look beyond the usual gastrointestinal symptoms. It is critically important to be tested before going on a gluten-free diet, which can disguise the intestinal damage characteristic of the condition. Those already eating a restricted diet would have to return to gluten for a few weeks in order for the test to be accurate. Of course a biopsy of the villi on the upper intestine is conclusive.
In the last few years, gluten-free diets have become the new in thing with most grocery stores having complete gluten-free sections. Health Canada says that any food labelled gluten-free must contain less than 20 parts per million of gluten (the amount in 18 slices of gluten-free bread), to be considered harmless for people with celiac disease.
The problem with gluten-free prepared foods from the supermarket or bakery is that they replace the gluten with sugars and fats and that generally makes them very unhealthy and much higher in caloric content.
The best gluten-free diet is to prepare all your foods from scratch. All uncoated, unprocessed meats, poultry, fish, beans, nuts, vegetables and fruits are naturally gluten-free and can be labelled as such. To be safe you must read the labels on all processed foods to spot hidden hazards such as hydrolyzed vegetable protein, and learn to ask detailed questions about how food is prepared when dining out. Even re-using water in which pasta is cooked can be dangerous.
Many people who purchase digestive enzymes and probiotics in health stores to control their IBS symptoms should consider getting tested for celiac disease just to rule it out in case it may be the cause of their symptoms.