NUTRITION
May 25, 2011

Symptom-Free Celiac Disease?

Some people with no symptoms of celiac disease may benefit from being gluten-free. Are you one of them?

Celiac disease is characterized by an "attack" of the immune system when even small amounts of gluten – a protein in wheat, barley, and rye – is ingested. Over time, serious damage can be done to the delicate tissue of the small intestine, which can dramatically reduce its ability to absorb nutrients. Most celiac patients have symptoms that clue them in that something’s wrong, ranging from digestive issues to fatigue to problems thinking.

Now, however, a new study shows that even people who are unaware that they have the disease because they are asymptomatic may actually benefit from going gluten-free.

Those who had gone gluten-free reported significant improvements in both digestive health and quality of life, compared to before they had shunned the troublesome protein. This means that although they had reported no digestive issues before changing their diets, they were actually experiencing subclinical (too subtle for a diagnosis) gastrointestinal symptoms.

The researchers of the current study tested the blood of over 3,000 apparently healthy patients who had at least one relative with celiac disease. Of the 40 people who tested positive for the disease, the researchers asked half to go gluten-free and the other half to keep on with their normal, gluten-friendly diet.

Those who had gone gluten-free reported significant improvements in both digestive health and quality of life, compared to before they had shunned the troublesome protein. This means that although they had reported no digestive issues before changing their diets, they were actually experiencing subclinical (too subtle for a diagnosis) gastrointestinal symptoms and reduced overall well being. But they only realized this after experiencing the improvements that came from removing the offending protein.

"Based on our results, an intensified [blood] screening of at-risk populations of celiac disease is encouraged," author Katri Kaukinen said. People at risk would presumably be those who have celiac disease in the family.

Approximately 1-2% of the population suffers from celiac disease, but according to the press release, some researchers estimate that upwards of 90% of celiac patients are undiagnosed. Of those who are diagnosed, sometimes it is not until late in life. Some experts have suggested that all people in the U.S. be tested for the disease as a matter of routine. But Kaukinen doesn’t think we’re quite there yet: "more research needs to be done before expanding screening to the general population."

Recent research has found that there is indeed a difference between celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, which has been debated for years, and that each represents a distinct response from the immune system. If you think you may be at risk for either one, it’s a good idea to talk to your doctor who can recommend the proper screening.

The research was carried out by a team at Tampere University Hospital and School of Medicine in Finland, and presented on May 9, 2011 at the Digestive Disease Week conference in Chicago, IL.

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