Coeliac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects the small intestine. Having an autoimmune condition means that your immune system attacks healthy cells by mistake.
With coeliac disease, eating gluten triggers an immune response that attacks the small intestine. Over time, this damages the lining of the intestine, making it difficult to absorb nutrients.
The condition is more common in women than it is in men, with reported cases of coeliac disease being two to three times higher in women.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a dietary protein in wheat, barley and rye. It's often found in foods such as pasta, cereals and bread. It can also be present in beers that have been brewed from barley.
Sticking to a gluten-free diet can be tricky at first when you're getting used to it, but there are plenty of gluten-free alternatives to common gluten-containing foods. Lots of foods and drinks that are already part of your everyday diet, like all fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, wine and cider, are naturally gluten free.
Symptoms of coeliac disease
If you do eat foods that contain gluten, you may experience certain gut-related symptoms, such as:
• Diarrhoea or constipation
• Abdominal pain
• Bloating and flatulence
Coeliac disease may also cause a number of less common or indirect symptoms, such as:
• A rash that is itchy
• Unexpected weight loss
• Nerve damage
• Disorders that impact balance, coordination and speech
• Having difficulty conceiving
If you think you may have coeliac disease, consult your GP who may recommend a blood test or biopsy.
Who can develop coeliac disease?
The reason why some people develop coeliac disease is unknown and symptoms of the disease can occur at any age. It is, however, most likely to develop during early childhood, between eight and 12 months old, or in later adulthood, between 40 to 50 years of age.
People with certain conditions, such as type 1 diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, Down syndrome or Turner syndrome, or a close relative with coeliac disease have an increased chance of developing coeliac disease.
If you're diagnosed with coeliac disease you should stick to a gluten-free diet even if your symptoms are mild or non-existent. Not doing so can lead to long term complications as your body is unable to absorb enough nutrients.
It’s important to make sure your diet is healthy and balanced while eating gluten free. These days gluten-free foods are plentiful and appetising, and many restaurants have special menus to cater to your gluten-free needs.
Complications of coeliac disease
If you have undiagnosed coeliac disease or you continue to consume gluten when you have been diagnosed with it, complications may arise. These include:
• Iron deficiency anaemia (which can result in tiredness and shortness of breath)
• Vitamin B12 deficiency anaemia (which can result in pale skin, tiredness and experiencing pins and needles)
• Folate deficiency anaemia (which can affect the healthy development of an unborn baby)
• Osteoporosis (which is the weakening of the bones)
• If you have a family history of coeliac disease or are experiencing symptoms, such as diarrhoea and indigestion, consult your GP to have tests
• If diagnosed with coeliac disease, it's very important to follow a gluten-free diet, even when your symptoms are mild or non-existent