Browse the health section of any magazine rack or website and you’ll see that celiac disease attracts a lot of attention these days. While there’s a growing awareness about this intestinal disorder, there’s also a lot of confusion.
Myth 1: Celiac disease is a rare condition in Canada and the US
Until recently, celiac disease was thought to be extremely rare. In 2003, there were only 40,000 diagnosed cases in the United States. Then the Center for Celiac Research at the University of Maryland published a study estimating that 2.5 million people in the U.S. have the disease. Shortly after, that estimate was boosted to 3 million. In Canada, it’s estimated that one person out every 100 has the disease, adding up to about 333,000 Canadians with this gluten-intolerant disorder. And because many celiac disease symptoms are similar to those of other disorders, many people remain undiagnosed.
Myth No 2: Celiac disease is a childhood disease
It’s not. While most people think celiac disease afflicts mostly children, it can occur at any age, including the elderly. In fact, two-thirds of those diagnosed are adults. Later in life, the disease can be triggered by pregnancy, surgery, gastrointestinal infection or severe emotional stress. According to a 2007 survey of the Canadian Celiac Association, the average time it took to get diagnosed was 12 years. Many respondents reported consulting with three or more doctors before their diagnosis was confirmed. That’s why many adults are in their late forties before they start on a treatment program, which is a gluten-free diet for life.
Myth 3: Celiac disease can be diagnosed by a simple blood test.
Researchers are finding easier ways to diagnose the disease early. Health Canada recently approved the Biocard Tes Kit, a do-it-yourself blood test that can detect the presence of certain antibodies in the blood — an indication that the body is fighting gluten. However, the blood test is only the first step toward a definite diagnosis. The second step is small bowel biopsy, performed by a gastroenterologist, which will show if there’s been damage to the small intestine. While the combination of blood test and biopsy is the routine way to check, keep in mind that you may get a false negative if your diet has been gluten-free before the tests. This can make the intestinal inflammation less obvious on the biopsy and affect the blood test.
Myth 4: A person with celiac disease needs to avoid only wheat and wheat products
Celiac disease is not the same as wheat allergy, in which a person has an abnormal reaction to the proteins in wheat. A wheat allergy can cause eczema, rashes and even anaphylaxis, the life-threatening reaction than can cause swelling of your throat, lips and tongue. Celiac disease, by contrast, is an autoimmune disease in which the lining of the small intestine is damaged by gluten, a protein found in all forms of wheat, rye and barley. So if you’ve been diagnosed celiac, avoid products related to all three grains. From the wheat family, it means avoiding spelt, kamut, semolina, durum, einkorn, and faro.