Mayo Clinic: Frequent Gastrointestinal Upset could be Celiac Disease

According to Joseph Murray, M.D., a Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist, frequent gastrointestinal upset can indicate celiac disease, which affects about one in 100 people. But only about one-tenth of those cases have been diagnosed, because celiac disease can present in many ways.

Murray recommends that people who regularly experience gastrointestinal upset consider a test for celiac disease. In an interview for the July issue of Mayo Clinic Women's HealthSource, he discusses celiac disease, its symptoms, treatment, and why a diagnosis is important.

Celiac disease, a digestive condition, is triggered by gluten, a protein found in breads, pasta, and other foods containing wheat, barley, and rye. When those who have celiac disease consume gluten, an immune reaction in the small intestine damages the lining of the intestine. That damage can interfere with digestion and the ability to absorb nutrients. Symptoms can include diarrhea, bloating, gas, and weight loss.

The disease is often mistaken for other disorders such as irritable bowel syndrome or Crohn's disease. Nutritional deficiency caused by celiac disease can lead to anemia, premature osteoporosis, nervous system problems, some cancers, and dementia. Celiac disease also can manifest as unexplained infertility, or children who fail to grow.

Usually, a gluten-free diet effectively treats celiac disease. Most people feel better within days or weeks after discontinuing gluten. Murray emphasizes that a test to confirm celiac disease is important before eliminating gluten from the diet. A diet change preceding a diagnostic test can result in a false-negative reading.

Once diagnosed, patients should work with an experienced dietitian to develop a nutritionally sound diet. While nutritional absorption will improve dramatically, many gluten-free foods aren't fortified with vitamins. Vitamins or calcium/vitamin D supplements often are recommended.

Eliminating gluten from the diet can be challenging. An increasing number of packaged foods, however, are gluten free. Also, many foods have no gluten, such as meat, poultry, fish, most dairy products, fruit, vegetables, and rice.

For more information, go to www.bookstore.mayoclinic.com.

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