Celiac Disease: Living a Gluten-Free Life

Celiac disease, a lifelong inherited autoimmune disorder, affects nearly 1 percent of the U.S. population. A gluten-free diet – which eliminates gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye – long has been used to treat the symptoms of celiac disease. As awareness of celiac disease has grown, so too has the trend of otherwise healthy consumers adopting a gluten-free regime as a means of losing weight. Frank Tursi, D.O., an osteopathic family practice physician from Millcreek Community Hospital, discusses celiac disease symptoms, treatment options and the pros and cons of a gluten-free diet. 

Symptoms of Celiac Disease

According to Dr. Tursi, if someone with celiac disease digests even a small amount of gluten, the protein can set off an autoimmune reaction that causes damage to the small intestine, which, in turn, prevents vitamins and nutrients from being absorbed. The disease interferes with proper digestion, and in children prompts symptoms that include growth problems, chronic diarrhea, constipation, recurring abdominal bloating and pain, fatigue and irritability.

Conversely, adults with celiac disease are less likely to show digestive symptoms, but will develop problems such as anemia, fatigue, osteoporosis or arthritis as the disorder robs their bodies of vital nutrients. “Most people, however, experience few or no digestive signs or symptoms,” Dr. Tursi notes. “Only about one-third of people diagnosed with celiac disease experience diarrhea, about half have weight loss and 20 percent have constipation,” he adds. “Since the disease affects people differently, it is imperative to visit your doctor if you have a family history of the disease or suspect that you might have it.”

How to Ensure a Proper Diagnosis

Because adults with celiac disease often don’t suffer the digestive symptoms associated with gluten intolerance, many are unaware they have it or could pass it on. Blood tests can help your doctor diagnose the disease. Dr. Tursi recommends a blood test to screen for the presence of specific antibodies in addition to a biopsy of the intestine.

To ensure the accuracy of the screening, Dr. Tursi warns against changing your diet or going gluten-free before the screening, as it could affect the test results. “There’s not much you can do to prevent celiac disease, but if you suspect you might have it, ascreening would be worthwhile,” he said.

Treating the Disease and Going Gluten-Free

“The only treatment for celiac disease is to adhere to a gluten-free diet,” Dr. Tursi said. Replacing foods that contain gluten with more veggies and healthy gluten-free whole grains, like quinoa and wild rice, will reduce celiac complications. “It’s a huge commitment since many common products, from salad dressings and seasoning mixes to vitamins and even lip balms, contain it,” Dr. Tursi said.

The perceived weight loss benefits of a gluten-free diet have enticed some healthy consumers to adopt gluten-free lifestyles. Dr. Tursi does not recommend this approach. “Most consumers don’t know that a lot of gluten-free foods are higher in fat to compensate for the missing gluten, and many are made with refined gluten-free grains, which have been stripped of their fiber and nutrients, like white rice,” explains Dr. Tursi. “At the end of the day, a self-prescribed gluten-free diet, without proper management, could actually lead to weight gain and deprive your body of necessary vitamins and nutrients.”

Tips for Optimizing Your Health

“If you think you may be gluten intolerant, consult your primary care physician,” Dr. Tursi advises. “If you are diagnosed with the disease, understand that eliminating gluten from your diet is not easy, but it can be done. Your primary care provider can help you maintain a balanced diet and live a healthy life with celiac disease.”

Preventive medicine is just one aspect of the care that osteopathic physicians provide. DOs are fully licensed to prescribe medicine and practice in all specialty areas, including surgery. DOs are trained to consider the health of the whole person, and to use their hands to help diagnose and treat patients.

August 23, 2013
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