Why is Celiac Disease Increasing?

The gluten free diet has been trendy for several years. Gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and other grains, can trigger an abnormal intestinal response in some people. This is called celiac disease. New research has found that celiac disease is on the rise, and it is not just because testing is becoming more common. What is going on?

Celiac disease currently affects about 1% of the U.S. population. Celiac suffers have severe stomach pain and digestive distress whenever they consume food that contains even trace amounts of gluten. The pain and diarrhea are caused by damage to the tiny, finger-like projections on the inner walls of the small intestines. These fingers, called villi, are responsible for absorbing nutrients from food. When celiac disease strikes, these villi are damaged, which reduces nutrient absorption, leading to rapid weight loss and bloating. If untreated, celiac disease can lead to cancer, infertility, osteoporosis and even death.

Doctors Chella David and Joseph Murray at the Mayo Clinic observed that the incidence of celiac disease has quadrupled since 1950. Some of the increase can be attributed to improved testing. Modern diagnostics include a simple blood test that detects gluten antibodies. Doctors have also observed a high correlation between Type I diabetes and celiac disease (they share a gene), so people with diabetes are typically tested for celiac disease.

Another explanation for the increase in celiac disease rates could be our modern lifestyle. Much of our food was not available in 1950. Wheat and other grains are cross-bred and genetically modified. The processing techniques are vastly different than in past decades. Plus, our diets are so rigorously controlled that our bodies have lost the ability to cope with food-triggered stresses.

How can you use this information? Clearly, if you are experiencing repeated bouts of stomach pain and diarrhea, you should seek treatment. People with untreated celiac disease are four times more likely to die than the general population.

If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, treatment is simple, although challenging. Avoiding gluten is easy to say and hard to do. Gluten hides in many processed foods. For example, nearly every Campbell’s soup contains gluten! Sauces and seasonings bear careful label-reading, too. But with good eyesight and a bit of care, you can enjoy life without gluten in your life!

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