What is Coeliac disease?

So, what exactly is Coeliac disease? The NHS describes Coeliac as “a condition where your immune system attacks your tissues when you eat gluten.”

Therefore, when a person with the disease eats certain foods (like wheat, rye and barley) that contain a protein called gluten, the body reacts immediately and mounts an immune response that starts attacking various organs, especially the small intestine.

It produces antibodies after mistaking healthy cells for harmful ones. So in the case of coeliac disease, one of the substances contained in gluten known as gliadin is mistakenly considered a threat to the body.

Antibodies have then produced that attack the small intestine. In the small intestine, tiny finger-like projections promote nutrient absorption.

These are damaged when the immune response kicks in, leading to the inability of nutrients to get adequately absorbed into the system.

Coeliac disease is a hereditary disease making it a disease that can be passed on within families. Coeliac disease can develop at any age, and if you have coeliac disease you can feel unwell when you eat foods with gluten in it. Even medicines that contain gluten can cause symptoms!

Coeliac disease may not be life-threatening but can lead to more severe and potentially life-threatening conditions such as coronary artery disease or cancer in the small bowel.

In addition, other disorders like multiple sclerosis, type 1 diabetes, anaemia, epilepsy, migraines, and miscarriages could arise from the non-treatment of coeliac disease.

How did it get the name of Coeliac

Coeliac is a word that is derived from a Greek word meaning abdominal. So coeliac disease is an illness that is related to the abdomen.

It was first reported in the second century when a Greek medic named Aretaeus recorded an occurrence of a patient who had stomach pains and was wasting away.

The patient looked pale and feeble and was incapable of work, and experienced chronic diarrhoea that manifested in loose stool that was white. The disease was hard to deal with and kept recurring. However, it was not until the 19th century that the western medical field identified this condition as Coeliac.

Symptoms of Coeliac Disease

What are the symptoms that one could be suffering from coeliac disease?

Mild cases may not show any signs.

The NHS website says that doctors sometimes detect coeliac disease while testing for another condition.

However, for others who have more severe cases, diarrhoea caused by the body not absorbing nutrients would be the most common symptom. Other symptoms may include abdominal pain, bloating, frequent passing of wind (the average would be between 5 to 15 times a day), indigestion, constipation, and vomiting in the case of children.

Other common symptoms include:

  • extreme tiredness
  • unexpected weight loss
  • an itchy rash
  • tingling and numbness of the hands and feet
  • swelling of the hands and feet caused by fluid build-up in those organs.

And because the body is not getting the nutrients needed from the food one eats, there is the likelihood of suffering from malnutrition.

Children with coeliac disease tend to have a slow growth rate affecting their height and weight and even delaying puberty.

According to the NHS, a slightly rarer symptom is a skin disorder called dermatitis herpetiformis.

It is an itchy rash that causes blisters that burst when scratched and usually occur on the elbows, knees and buttocks.

While not directly a symptom of coeliac disease, this symptom can also be amongst people with an autoimmune response to gluten.

Diagnosis Of Coeliac Disease

A person needs to be correctly diagnosed with coeliac disease. This is normally initially with blood tests, then if that is indicating you have coeliac then they stick a camera down your throat and do a biopsy.

Of course, for the antibodies (in the blood test) to be present, you must have eaten something with gluten so that the body reacts to it.

The biopsy is a more complex procedure done by a gastroenterologist (a medical practitioner specialising in treating the stomach and intestines) who will insert an endoscope in the mouth to the small intestine. The endoscope is a flexible tube with a light and a camera at the end.

Then the gastroenterologist will use a biopsy tool passed through the endoscope to get samples from the small intestine.

The biopsy samples will then be examined microscopically for signs of the disease. Further tests may need to be done by the doctors to establish the extent of the effect of coeliac disease on the body.

Treatment For Coeliac Disease

What treatment is available once a patient has been diagnosed with coeliac disease?

The only and most effective treatment for coeliac disease is strictly following a gluten-free diet.

As mentioned earlier, gluten is contained mainly in grains, especially barley, wheat and rye.

Hence, people with coeliac disease should avoid food products that may have been contaminated with wheat gluten during processing.

For one with the disease, what that means is that they MUST avoid gluten for the rest of their lives. As noted above, gluten, even in small quantities for a person living with coeliac disease, could damage the small intestine.

So one must be very careful and be very keen to ask, especially when eating out, which gluten-free food is on the menu. The good thing is most restaurants, including fast-food restaurants, now offer gluten-free dining.