One of the most common responses to the patient with a set of complaints that do not fall into a well-known medical syndrome pattern is to assume the person is suffering from “mental problems.”
Time and time again I hear stories from patients recounting years of personal suffering from a mystery disease or a chronic illness. They describe in bitter detail either being ignored by doctors or being shunted from doctor to doctor with no help provided.
Celiac is one of these mystery diseases. Contrary to popular belief, celiac is not a rare disease but is, in fact, one of the most common autoimmune diseases. Some estimates put it at 1 out of every 100 people. (For more information on celiac as well as other puzzling diseases, get my special report “Mystery Diseases that Baffle Your Doctor.”)
Like many such diseases, celiac is caused by an inherited weakness. The bad gene responsible doesn’t cause problems unless the person is exposed to a protein called “gluten.”
Gluten can be found in certain grains such as wheat, rye and barley. When people with this genetic weakness eat foods containing gluten (and one of its proteins called gliadin), the toxic protein gets trapped under cells lining the gastrointestinal tract.
The immune system tries valiantly to remove this trapped protein. The ensuing immune attack in the wall of the intestine results in a blazing fire of inflammation that smolders for very long periods of time. Because each meal contains this same protein, the attack can continue for a lifetime.
You would naturally think that the major symptoms of such a disorder would be related
to the GI tract, and you would be right; yet only 1 in 6 people diagnosed actually exhibits these symptoms. They include:
• Intestinal cramping
• Recurrent diarrhea
• Weight loss from impaired nutrient absorption
Most victims of celiac disease have symptoms completely unrelated to the GI tract, or have no observable symptoms at all.
Victims of undiagnosed celiac disease can experience a long list of symptoms. They include the following:
• Sudden loss of hair
• Severe hypothyroidism or even hyperthyroidism (Graves disease)
• Loss of balance (ataxia)
• Recurrent pneumonia or meningitis from a loss of adrenal gland function (Addison’s disease)
• Various deadly cancers
Celiac is multisystem, meaning it affects many organs and a number of conditions may be the presenting feature of the disease. For example, the first symptom may be a seizure, or infertility, or even a migraine headache. This is why doctors often fail to make the link.
One of the most devastating effects of celiac disease is the malabsorption of nutrients from foods. Various food components, such as calcium, vitamins, and iron are absorbed from special segments of the GI tract.
A common misdiagnosis is irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). It is estimated that 36 percent of celiac disease patients were first diagnosed as having IBS.
Studies show that 97 percent of people with celiac disease go undiagnosed for much of their lives. The average time of diagnosis for even moderately severe cases is nine years.
Making the diagnosis of celiac requires a high index of suspicion — if you suspect you may have this disorder, discuss it with your doctor. If necessary, seek a specialist who treats celiac disease.
Gastroenterologists consider an intestinal biopsy as the definitive test, which can be done rather simply as an outpatient procedure.
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