Coeliac disease

What is Coeliac disease?

The word 'coeliac' (also spelled 'celiac) is from the ancient Greek 'koiliakos' which means 'abdominal'. Coeliac disease is where your body is unable to break down proteins (prolamins) that are present in gluten. It is also referred to as 'nontropical sprue', 'coeliac sprue' and 'gluten-sensitive enteropathy', and is considered to be an autoimmune disorder.

People with coeliac disease are susceptible to the proteins in gluten damaging the lining of the small intestine, particularly small finger shaped protrusions called 'villi', which help the body absorb nutrients into the bloodstream. Where these villi are damaged nutrients are not absorbed properly (referred to as 'malabsorption') and sufferers of coeliac disease are subject to malnutrition, irrespective of the amount of food consumed.

Unfortunately gluten, which is naturally contained in wheat, rye, barley and oats* is also added to many other food products, making elimination of all gluten from the diet a little tricky. Foods such as bread, pasta, pizza and many cereals contain gluten and are thus off the menu for coeliac disease sufferers.

Coeliac disease can occur at any age and affects children and adults. Sufferers are genetically predisposed to the condition, although it is also believed to be triggered by several factors including pregnancy and childbirth, viral infections, surgery and even severe emotional stress.

Around a third of the population are genetically predisposed to the condition, but only 1 in 30 of these will develop coeliac disease, with anything up to 1 in 70 people Australians believed to be affected, many of whom are undiagnosed.

What are the symptoms of Coeliac disease?

Common symptoms in people with coeliac disease include...

  • Abdominal pain
  • Diarrhoea
  • Fatigue
  • Abdominal bloating, or a permanent feeling of being full
  • Oily stools that float
  • Loss of appetite/low appetite
  • Loss of weight
  • Bad wind
  • Skin rashes (especially if itchy)
  • Anaemia (low iron)
  • Osteporosis (weak bones)
  • Slow growth (in children)

...although many sufferers have none of these symptoms.

How is Coeliac disease diagnosed

The condition is generally diagnosed via a blood test to check for higher than normal levels of antibodies after consuming gluten. A biopsy (where a sample of tissue is taken) of the small intestine may also be needed to check if there is any damage to the lining indicating coeliac disease.

What are the treatment options for Coeliac disease?

Where coeliac disease is diagnosed it is essential to cut all gluten from the diet. This is (unfortunately) a lifelong dietary change. The goods news is that most sufferers of coeliac disease notice a positive improvement within two weeks of giving up gluten. In some cases sufferers may need to take nutritional supplements (particularly iron).

* although the protein in oats is slightly different and does not seem to affect people with coeliac disease

More information on Coeliac disease here -