After yesterday’s post about how I was finally diagnosed as a Coeliac, I’ve had some very supportive comments from my friends and family. However, it quickly became clear I had neglected to describe just what Coeliac’s disease is and why it can have such a big impact on a person’s entire life.
Coeliac’s disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder. It is unique as it is the only autoimmune disease with a specific environmental trigger: gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. This means that when I eat something with gluten it causes an immune response, with my own body attacking itself. As the gluten is in food, the damage is concentrated in my intestines where the undigested gluten is. The undigested gluten “sticks” to the cells lining the walls of the intestine. Detecting an unwanted intruder, my immune system attacks these cells, killing them.
Normally the inner walls of the intestine are covered in a myriad of tiny, finger like projections called villi. These increase the surface area of the intestine, so it can absorb nutrients from digested food much more effectively. However, over time the damage to the intestinal wall means there are not enough healthy cells left to make villi. Thus the best way to diagnose Coeliac’s disease is by doing an upper GI endoscopy (sticking a tube down the throat, through the stomach and into the intestines). By taking a small sample of tissue from the intestines, the doctor can see the characteristic flattening of villi caused by out of control Coeliac’s disease.
Most of the classic symptoms of Coeliac’s disease stem from the damage done to the gut. The immune system attacking the walls of the intestine causes pain and stomach cramps. As it’s not absorbed, most of the undigested gluten makes its way to the colon, where bacteria feast on it, causing excessive wind and bloating. Eating gluten can also cause nausea and diarrhoea as the body tries to get rid of the irritant.
However, damaging the ability of the intestine to properly absorb nutrients from food can cause much more serious longer term consequences. Chronic fatigue caused by a semi-starvation diet is no joke. As I’ve mentioned previously, I also suffered from severe iron deficiency anaemia, and vitamin K deficiency. Others end up with early onset osteoporosis (brittle bone disease) from not properly absorbing calcium. What’s more, over 90% of serotonin, a feel-good neurotransmitter, is made by gut bacteria. Constant diarrhoea flushes out these good bacteria, leading to low levels of serotonin and a high risk of depression and other mental health disorders. And a constantly fired up immune system affects the whole body, leading to other inflammatory conditions like eczema and arthritis.
Despite showing all the classic symptoms of Coeliac’s disease and frequent visits to various doctors, it took over 30 years for my Coeliac’s disease to be diagnosed. There are even cases of very sensitive Coeliac’s starving to death as small children. The worse their tummy troubles got, the more their parents gave them nothing but crackers and dry toast. This is why we need Coeliac Awareness Week – it could literally save a life!
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