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What is coeliac disease?

What is coeliac disease and how you can fight it with a gluten free diet. 

Gluten free food & drink

Coeliac disease is a condition where your immune system will attack and damage parts of your own body if food containing gluten (e.g., bread, pasta, cakes) is eaten. It’s usually treated with a gluten free diet.

Coeliac disease is an autoimmune disease. For those with the condition, it mistakenly triggers the immune system to produce antibodies attacking the small intestine when gluten is eaten.

Gluten is found in 3 types of cereal; wheat, barley and rye; and any products using those cereals, like bread, pasta, cakes, biscuits and sauces.

This adverse reaction to gluten damages the micro villi lining the small intestine, disrupting the body’s ability to take in nutrients from food. If coeliac disease remains undiagnosed, micro villi can die off and vital nutrients can no longer be absorbed. This can result in symptoms ranging from minor discomfort to life-threatening conditions like severe anaemia. 

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What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of coeliac disease can vary significantly from person to person in both severity and the number of symptoms experienced.

Coeliac disease can cause a range of gut symptoms, such as:

  • diarrhoea, excessive wind and constipation
  • persistent or unexplained gastrointestinal issues like nausea and vomiting
  • recurring stomach pain, cramping and bloating.

It can also cause a range of more general symptoms, including:

  • tiredness and headaches
  • unintentional weight loss (in some cases, not all)
  • any combination of iron, vitamin B12 or folic acid deficiency
  • mouth ulcers
  • hair loss
  • a skin rash (dermatitis herpetiformis)
  • tooth enamel problems

 

  • osteoporosis
  • depression
  • problems getting pregnant (infertility)
  • repeated miscarriages
  • joint and bone pain
  • nerve problems such as poor muscle coordination (ataxia) and numbness or tingling in the hands and feet (neuropathy).

Myth Buster 1: You do not need to be underweight or have lost weight to have coeliac disease. Most people are a normal weight or even overweight at diagnosis.

Myth Buster 2: Some symptoms are often mistaken as Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or a wheat intolerance. 

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What about children?

In babies, symptoms may develop after weaning onto cereals which contain gluten. Other symptoms in young children can include:

  • muscle wasting in the arms and legs
  • bloated tummy
  • irritability
  • failure to gain weight or lose weight after previously growing well.

Symptoms in older children can vary as they do in adults.

I think I have coeliac disease. What should I do?

If you think you may have coeliac disease, you must keep eating gluten until your doctor makes an official diagnosis. Whilst symptoms may be uncomfortable, a doctor will need to test how the body responds to gluten. It’s essential for an accurate diagnosis and your long-term health.

It’s recommended is to eat gluten in more than one meal every day for at least six weeks before testing. If you've already reduced or eliminated gluten from your diet, it’ll need to be reintroduced for the most accurate test results. You should discuss with your doctor how best to manage your symptoms.

Whilst there's no cure for coeliac disease, once officially diagnosed, a gluten free diet can help control symptoms and prevent any long-term complications.

How do I manage a gluten free diet?

Following a gluten free diet can be easier than you think. Grains and their flours that do not contain gluten, like buckwheat and quinoa, can be used to make a range of gluten free foods. Many staple foods are naturally gluten free such as meat, fish, eggs, vegetables, fruits and milk.

If you need further advice on managing a gluten free diet, contact the coeliac society in your country for information and support. 

How to manage a gluten free diet