Dr. Joseph Murray, of the Mayo Clinic Rochester, MN, is a gastroenterologist who specializes in treating Celiac disease. He gave a talk entitled Celiacs in the 90s at a conference hosted by the American Celiac Society on June 10-11, 1994. What follows are highlights of Dr. Murrays talk. Dr. Murray comes from Ireland, where Celiac Sprue (CS) is much more common. In Ireland, people have a much easier time dealing with the gluten-free (gluten-free) diet, whereas in the US it is almost as though it were considered unpatriotic to not eat wheat. You can reach Dr. Murray at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Not every Celiac patient suffers weight loss or has diarrhea. One of his patients is a woman who weighed 400 lbs. when she was diagnosed. Her symptoms included nocturnal pain, and constipation. After checking the stomach and some other testing, they did a small intestine biopsy. When they found the classic flat villi, they suspected a lab mix-up because the womans symptoms were so atypical. In this case, the woman was suffering from cravings that caused her to greatly overeat. She was nutritionally over- compensating for the small intestine damage. After being diagnosed, the patient went on the gluten-free diet, lost some of these cravings, and promptly lost 50 lbs.
Symptomatic Celiacs can be split into two groups: Those that have the classical CS symptoms and those that have atypical symptoms or only one of the classical symptoms. Patients in the first group are usually (though not always) diagnosed correctly by a gastroenterologist. Those in the second group, which make up about 2/3 of Dr. Murrays patients, are much more difficult to diagnose. Another factor is variable histology, which basically means that the villi are not always completely flat.
The average adult has more than 20 feet of small intestine, and often, only the very front part gets severely damaged. Often, the remaining portion of the small intestine is able to compensate for what the damaged section is not absorbing. Dr. Murray believes that we are seeing fewer diagnosed Celiacs in the US than in Ireland because our diets are very calorie-dense. This means that even with malabsorption you are still getting a lot of nutrients so that you absorb enough to not lose weight and not fully develop other symptoms.
Gluten causes damage that makes the gut leaky. This can lead to exposure of the bodys immune system to foreign allergens it would not otherwise see. This explains why Celiacs tend to have more allergies than the general population.
Dr. Murray believes there are several triggers that can activate Celiac disease in genetically susceptible people:
- A sudden change to a low fat diet, which usually means a sudden increase in starches, which usually means a dramatic increase in wheat-based products.
- A woman is susceptible during postpartum, when the immune system is adjusting to the changes after delivery.
- Surgery, particularly GI (gall bladder, etc.) can be a trigger.
- Certain viral infections. Also, there is some suspicion that certain antibiotics can be triggers, though in these cases it could also be the infection that the antibiotics are fighting.
Dr. Murray believes CS is not an allergy; it is an auto immune disease (Allergy vs. Intolerance). For Celiac disease to develop, two conditions must be met:
- There must be a genetic predisposition towards Celiac disease. This involves very specific genetic factors.
- The auto immune system must be triggered in some way.
CS tends somewhat to run in families. The incidence in first degree relatives (parents, siblings, children) of a Celiac is about 10%. Anyone who has both a parent and a child with CS should be tested themselves for CS. CS is not entirely genetic. Among identical twins, if one has CS, about 70% of the time the other will also have CS. If the disease were entirely genetic, then the incidence in identical twins would be 100%. Among siblings that are HLA-matched to a Celiac sibling, the incidence of CS is about 30%. When not HLA-matched, the incidence rate is much lower.
According to Dr. Murray, since CS is an auto immune disease, it follows that there are other auto immune diseases that are associated with it. Rheumatoid Arthritis, Lupus, Type I Diabetes, and some eye problems may occur more frequently in CS patients. This is not because of gluten or CS itself; it is because CS patients are part of a group that is genetically predisposed towards auto immune problems. About 5% of CS patients also have DH. At the University of Iowa, there have been 350 patients diagnosed with DH. Dr. Murray believes these have celiac disease. If these DH patients are only 5% of the Celiacs, then there should be about 7,000 Celiacs in the Iowa area. The number of diagnosed Celiacs is much less than 7,000. Even if this extrapolation is exaggerated, it is still clear that there are many undiagnosed Celiacs out in the general population.
Most DH patients are prescribed Dapsone, which treats the symptoms. In most cases, they are told of the gluten-free diet, but it is not stressed and so most DH patients do not follow the diet. Dr. Murray finds this most distressing, because even if these patients dont have GI-related symptoms, there is still continual damage being done to the small intestine. Dermatologists, in general, dont give enough consideration to a GI problem as the source of DH. This places DH patients at an even greater risk of developing lymphoma in the small intestine.
Lymphoma in the small intestine is extremely rare in the general population. Untreated Celiacs have a 70 or 80 times greater chance of developing lymphoma. A lifetime of not following the gluten-free diet gives a Celiac about a 7% chance of developing lymphoma. There is also an increased risk of other GI-related and lymphatic cancers. The risk of developing lymphoma immediately begins to decrease when a Celiac patient starts following a gluten-free diet. The risk continues to decrease until, after 3-5 years, it approaches that of the general population.
Dr. Murray makes a small intestine X-ray a routine part of the treatment for a newly diagnosed adult Celiac patient, especially those over 40 years of age. Hes looking for lymphoma in the small intestine. It is very difficult to find, but if it is found it can usually be successfully treated.
DH is caused by reactions to antibody complexes that, for reasons not totally clear, become deposited under the skin. These DH breakouts can continue for a long time after a gluten-free diet is adopted, because these deposits are not reabsorbed by the body very quickly. In about 70% of the cases, dapsone treatments can be discontinued after 18 months-2 years; for the other 30% it takes longer.
How gluten-free should the diet be? Dr. Murray believes that Celiacs should treat gluten the same way they treat rat poison. Celiacs should never eat food if it is known to contain gluten. Accidental ingestion of gluten should be avoided as much as possible. For a Celiac, it is unacceptable for gluten to be ingested more than once a month, accidentally or otherwise. You can NOT judge whether a food has gluten by your reaction to it. Many Celiacs can ingest small amounts of gluten with no symptoms; however, the small intestine is still being damaged.
Dr. Murray stressed that once you have Celiac disease, you will always have it; you will never be able to eat wheat or other gluten-containing products again. This is a fact of life that Celiacs simply must accept and live with.
Lactose intolerance is not common in white Caucasian adults of northern European descent; probably close to 5%. (Editors note: According to Dr. Alexander, it occurs in about 30% of the adult US population.) A newly diagnosed Celiac may have temporary lactose-intolerance due to the damage in the gut; the intolerance should disappear once the gut heals. If you are lactose-intolerant, you should be aware that while ingesting lactose may make you uncomfortable, it does not damage the intestine. Most newly diagnosed Celiacs can use temporary lactose-intolerance as a way to check on the healing taking place. Once a month, they should drink half a glass of milk on an empty stomach and see if there is a reaction such as gas, cramps, diarrhea, etc. Failure to have a lactose reaction means that the gut is healing and the diet is working. For most people, lactose intolerance will disappear within six months of being on a gluten-free diet.
Dr. Murray advises Celiac patients against smoking. Newly diagnosed Celiacs, as well as those not following a strict gluten-free diet, already have an increased risk of malignancy. Celiacs cannot afford to increase that risk even further by smoking.
Refractory Sprue is a rare complication that generally occurs in older Celiac patients. This is a situation where malabsorption continues to occur even though the patient is on a gluten-free diet. Dr. Murray says the first three things you do when presented with refractory sprue are:
- Check the diet
- Check the diet again
- Check the diet a third time
Once you have verified that no hidden sources of gluten are causing the problem, then you recheck the diagnosis, look for enzyme supplements to help with digestion, check for pancreatic problems, lymphoma bacterial overgrowth, etc.
Diagnosis of CS in the US is probably lower than it should be due to rigid medical practices and old thinking. One common label applied to people with stomach complaints is Irritable Bowel Syndrome. Dr. Murray calls that an intellectual trash can if it is used too widely and if doctors forget about other possibilities, in that it is occasionally over-diagnosed. It really means, There is something wrong with your stomach, and we dont know what it is. The occurrence of stress-induced bowel dysfunction is a real entity.
In the US, CS is an exception to the rule concerning research efforts. It is considered to be a marginal disease. There is very little commercial interest in it. CS is definitely under-represented when compared to other diseases that get far more attention. Dr. Murray believes there are too many different national organizations that deal with CS. He believes these organizations need to unify and become one in order to advance the national agenda. He thinks local support groups such as our TCCSSG are doing a lot of good work; he considers belonging to a support group to be an essential part of the treatment of Celiac disease.
Dr. Murray recommends physicians associated with local support groups should read a book that thoroughly explains this disease. The book is Coeliac Disease, by Michael Marsh, Blackwell Scientific Publications, November 1992. It costs about $175, but is well worth the cost if it helps a physician become more interested and learn more about this disease.