Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disorder caused by a permanent intolerance to gluten - a protein found in grains such wheat, barley and rye.
In genetically-predisposed people, eating gluten induces a severe autoimmune response which damages the lining of the small intestine. This creates lesions and, if left untreated, the intestinal villi become inflamed and flattened. This usually results in the destruction of the villi and reduces the body’s ability to absorb essential nutrients. Over time, this can cause the symptoms and complications commonly associated with coeliac disease.
Coeliac disease is associated with a wide variety of symptoms:
• Weight loss
• Abdominal discomfort
• Mouth ulcers
Coeliac disease is believed to affect 1 in 100 people. Research shows that young people today are five times more likely to have the disease compared to young people in the 1950’s, although coeliac disease can occur at any age. Under-diagnosis, however, is a major factor. According to Coeliac UK, only 10-15% of sufferers are clinically diagnosed. If a first degree family member (mother, father, sister or brother) has the condition, then the chance of developing the disease increases to 1 in 10.
Coeliac disease is not curable. It is a permanent, life-long condition and there is no medication available to treat the disease. However, damage to the small intestine is reversible, so patients should follow a gluten-free diet to eliminate all foods derived from wheat, rye or barley (and oats if contaminated with wheat). If a gluten-free diet is strictly adhered to, the intestinal villi can recover and patients should experience an improvement in symptoms.
Left undiagnosed, coeliac disease can increase susceptibility to life-threatening conditions such as osteoporosis, central nervous system diseases, internal haemorrhages and certain cancers (lymphomas), so early detection is vital.
While an intestinal biopsy remains the “gold standard” method for diagnosing coeliac disease, it is highly invasive for the patient. However, blood tests are now available to screen for coeliac disease by detecting specific autoantibodies commonly associated with the condition.