Coeliac disease What is coeliac disease? September 04 2019
Tracy McBeth Tracy McBeth Journalist

We take a look at coeliac disease to explain what it is and what causes it.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition where the body has an abnormal reaction to gluten (the proteins found in wheat and related grains). People who have it can experience gastrointestinal symptoms such as diarrhea and bloating, frequent headaches, depression, joint pain, infertility and a number of other problems. When a person with coeliac disease eats gluten the body reacts as if it’s harmful and tries to fight it by producing antibodies against it. This reaction leads to inflammation of the villi (tiny finger-like structures) in the lining of the small intestine and they become swollen and flat. This flattening of the villi reduces the surface area of the bowel which drastically reduces the ability to absorb nutrients.

What are the signs and symptoms? 

Some people experience various symptoms, while others might not have any at all. Common symptoms include:

  • Stomach pain or discomfort
  • Gas and/or bloating
  • Diarrhoea, or severe constipation 
  • Nausea and/or vomiting 
  • Weight loss
  • Bone and/or joint pain
  • Fatigue
  • Dizziness
  • Anaemia or other vitamin deficiencies 
  • Dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy, blistering rash usually on the elbows, knees and buttocks).

In children, there can be a failure to thrive – developmentally, physically, and even emotionally.

According to Coeliac Australia, having a related health issue such as one of those listed below indicates you may need to be screened for coeliac disease: 

  • Autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes or rheumatoid arthritis
  • Unexplained fertility problems
  • Liver problems
  • Early onset of brittle and weak bones (osteoporosis)
  • Nervous system problems such as neuropathy or depression
  • Oral health issues such as enamel defects or recurrent mouth ulcers.

What causes coeliac disease?

It’s not yet known why people develop coeliac disease. You can be born with a genetic predisposition towards coeliac disease and it may then be triggered by something in your environment. Coeliac disease often runs in the family so screening is recommended if you know you have a family history of it, such as having a parent, sibling or child who has been diagnosed. 

Coeliac Australia says it affects about 1 in 70 Australians, but about 80 per cent remain undiagnosed. The prevalence of coeliac disease is highest among Caucasians and West Asians.

How do you test for coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease can be difficult to diagnose because some coeliac symptoms are similar to other gastrointestinal conditions such as food intolerances and irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). This means you can’t rely on symptoms alone to diagnose it. 

If you’re worried you might have this disease talk to your doctor before taking any action. It’s recommended you don’t start a gluten free diet before getting tested as it can impact on the accuracy of the test results. 

Accurate testing involves two steps. First, you’ll need to get a blood test which looks for an elevated level of certain antibodies in the blood. 

If the blood test shows signs of coeliac disease it’s important to follow it up with a small bowel biopsy to confirm the diagnosis. A small bowel biopsy involves a simple day procedure called a gastroscopy, which is usually performed under light sedation. Flexible equipment is passed through the mouth and down to the small intestine to take a small sample of cells from the lining. This will be examined under a microscope to determine whether damage is present.  

How do you treat coeliac disease?

Coeliac disease doesn’t have to ruin your life. While there is currently no cure for coeliac disease, which is a lifelong condition, the good news is it can be managed by following a strict gluten free diet. This allows the bowel to heal and once again absorb nutrients from food, and avoids further damage. 

The FoodSwitch app has a handy filter to help you find out whether a food product contains gluten. It can also show you other similar products which are gluten free. 

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Tracy McBeth Tracy McBeth Journalist Tracy is a journalist with a passion for promoting good health; both mentally and physically.