Celiac.com 06/30/2017 - Dear attending physician: If you are reading this it is because your patient either expects you to refuse or you have refused to test them for celiac disease. You may believe, in keeping with prior training, that this patient does not display the signs or symptoms associated with celiac disease. However, the symptom complex of celiac disease has recently undergone dramatic changes, beginning with the understanding that celiac disease is a systemic, rather than an intestinal ailment. World renowned researchers have weighed in on this issue, with peer reviewed reports that repeatedly establish the protean manifestations of celiac disease. They defy prior algorithms for symptom assessment toward diagnosing celiac disease. In the past, undiagnosed celiac patients were often identified as asymptomatic because their symptoms were simply not diarrhea, abdominal bloating, and muscle wasting. However, the Celiac Disease Center at the University of Chicago lists more than 300 presenting symptoms of celiac disease (1). The same group also offers a list of symptoms that demonstrate the wide range of apparently unrelated symptoms that can indicate celiac disease, only the first two of which represent these classical symptoms (2).
- Recurring abdominal bloating and pain
- Chronic or recurrent diarrhea
- Nausea or emesis
- Liver and biliary tract disorders (increased serum transaminases, primary sclerosing cholangitis)
- Weight loss
- Pale, foul-smelling stool
- Iron-deficiency anemia unresponsive to iron therapy
- Failure to thrive or short stature
- Delayed puberty
- Tingling numbness in the legs
- Pale sores inside the mouth
- Dermatitis herpetiformis
- Abnormal dentition (tooth discoloration, loss of enamel)
- Unexplained infertility or recurrent miscarriage
- Osteopenia or osteoporosis
- Peripheral neuropathy
- Psychiatric disorders (anxiety or depression)
Overweight and obesity may also indicate underlying celiac disease. Today's affluence and accompanying food surpluses permit people who are not absorbing nutrients efficiently to eat enough to more than compensate for otherwise calorically deficient diets. Thus, only a minority of celiac disease cases present with classical symptoms in most of the first world. In fact, some reports indicate that overweight patients with celiac disease are as common as those who are underweight ( 3, 4, 5). This is why researchers have long employed the iceberg metaphor to describe the mass of people with celiac disease. The vast majority these people with celiac disease remain undiagnosed (6). Until sensitive and specific serological screening tools became available, very few cases were diagnosed and celiac disease was erroneously considered rare.
In addition to alleviating quite a lot of human suffering, early detection offers some rather large economies for the health care system, as many of the more serious ailments that often befall those with untreated celiac disease may be averted through these inexpensive serological tests and subsequent prescription of a strict gluten free diet.
Prior to the therapeutic use of a gluten free diet, mortality was reported at 36% among 73 children with celiac disease (7). Admittedly, it is likely that these were the more serious cases and perhaps some cases of misdiagnosis. However, even as recently as 1989, adult celiac patients experienced almost double the early mortality rate seen in the general population (8), so an early diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease is not just helpful in mitigating current symptoms, it is a powerful form of preventive medicine that is coincidental to the appropriate diagnosis and treatment of celiac disease.
Let me expand on that last comment a little further. Chronic depression (9), ADHD (10), neurological (11) and neuromuscular disorders(12) treatment-resistant iron deficiency (13, 14), impaired lung function (15, 16) a variety of lymphomas including B cell and T cell (17, 18, 19) and adenocarcinomas (20, 21) dental enamel defects (22, 23) autoimmune thyroid disease (24, 25 ) autoimmunity in general (26) type 1 diabetes (27, 28) kidney disease (29) liver disease (30, 31) skin disease (32, 33) seizure disorders (34) gait disorders (35) obesity (36) fatigue (37) anxiety (38) infertility (39) osteoporosis (40) learning disorders (41, 42) aphasia (43) and many more such sequels to untreated celiac disease (44) impose an enormous economic burden on our health system and education system. This burden weighs on most levels of government, private insurance companies, families, and individuals. Much of this unnecessary cost is ultimately passed along to taxpayers and/or are incorporated into insurance premiums. We all pay.
And the human costs are even greater. Attention deficits and learning disabilities impose life-long inhibitions on success and are corrosive to self esteem. Depression robs us of individual, economic and social achievements, as well as denying us the day-to-day pleasures of life. Similarly, anxiety and infertility are socially isolating and heartbreaking, each in their own ways. Neurological and seizure disorders, including gait disorders, can inhibit our mobility and/or our safe function in this increasingly complex and fast-paced society. Impaired lung function can prohibit or interfere with normal, desirable activities ranging from pleasant walks, sports, and even having sex. Lymphomas and adenocarcinomas can have rapidly fatal consequences. The individual and familial consequences are often devastating. Type 1 diabetes tethers us to insulin injections and requires that we maintain a careful balance between carbohydrate intake and insulin injections. The challenges of this diet dwarfs the inconvenience of a gluten free diet, and a late celiac diagnosis may require that some people comply with both sets of dietary constraints. Skin disease can also exact an enormous social toll, and this is ignores the discomfort and embarrassment of constant itching and scratching, as well as the pain associated with the most common skin diseases connected to celiac disease. Similarly, obesity is not only socially excluding, it poses its own sets of health hazards and life shortening penalties. As osteoporosis becomes more and more common, we can see that society's increasing nutritional dependence on gluten grains may well have set the stage for this degenerative condition, often requiring painful and expensive joint replacement surgeries as our bones gradually crumble and shrink. The dramatic loss of our ability to produce intelligible speech, called aphasia, is by no means the least of this list. The horrific nightmare of being unable to speak to others and have them understand us has been the lived experience of at least one individual. His speech slowly returned after his celiac diagnosis and some time on a gluten free diet. Too many of us are not so lucky.
Many of us see ourselves, and our symptoms, in the many posts, blog comments, listservs and websites that discuss celiac disease. Yet outdated medial training can create barriers to patients seeking testing. However, given the above, peer reviewed data and expert opinions, it is difficult to imagine any reasonable argument for refusing to test a patient who requests serological testing for celiac disease. The cost is minimal and the potential benefits to those who are diagnosed, and our society, are enormous.
Current data suggest a prevalence of celiac disease in the general population at somewhere around 1%, based on serological testing for selective antibodies. However, newly emerging data suggest that a portion of the population that is at least six or seven times the size of the group with celiac disease mounts an innate immune response to gluten grains. The careful characterization of one pathway for activating intestinal inflammation by non-gluten components of these grains, leaves open the possibility of "gliadin-dependent signaling pathways that still remain to be characterized" (45).
Other forms of non-celiac gluten sensitivity, as signaled by IgG class antibodies against gliadin, are seen in 10% to 12% of the general population. Whether these segments of the population with non-celiac gluten sensitivity overlap or are distinct has yet to be determined, so it remains unclear whether they form 10% of our population, or as much as 19% of our culture. Finally, based on a new book by the world renowned pediatric gastroenterologist and allergist, Dr. Rodney Ford, titled Gluten: Zero Global, there is considerable evidence to suggest that, with their many other anti-nutrient, addictive, allergenic, and blood-glucose altering features, gluten grains are a questionable macronutrient food source for humans (46).
Thus, testing for non-celiac gluten sensitivity, may offer many of the benefits that testing for celiac disease offers. Your patient and I are asking that you heed the above data from your professional literature and the first dictum of your profession, by 'first doing no harm', and ordering testing for celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity.
Dr. Ron Hoggan, Ed. D.
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