Medical Acceptance of the Celiac Pandemic:
Is the Decades-Old Ridicule Ending?


Coralee Thompson M.D.

When 50 million people worldwide are afflicted by a serious illness, isn’t it time for a public health movement to occur? It’s long overdue. One in about a hundred adults and children has a disease whose incidence has been worsening for several decades without being addressed by mainstream medicine. And, about a third of the population carries one or two of the genes that trigger this disease. It’s a problem that can destroy one’s life – not unlike cancer and heart disease – and can kill you.

The condition? Celiac disease, also called gluten-sensitive enteropathy or simply put—wheat intolerance (although it’s more than wheat). It’s all the same problem on a spectrum of severity – some are devastated by it, some die of it and others are just plain sick with seemingly elusive and difficult to diagnose problems. The incidence is common: there are four times as many Americans with celiac disease as the number of people who have heart attacks. While many people have died from celiac, most are just miserably ill, with others living a low quality of life. Unfortunately, most health care professionals are still not informing their patients of the problem, or its very simple treatment.

What’s the treatment? Eliminate all gluten from your diet. This includes all types of wheat and other gluten containing grains such as durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, rye, barley and triticale. You will not miss out on anything very nutritious by avoiding these gluten foods. However, by substituting fresh vegetables, fruits and other healthy items, you’ll obtain much more nutrition.

A new article in the Journal of Family Practice may help spread the word to health care professionals and patients about celiac disease and its pandemic nature. The article discusses many of the scientifically documented aspects of the disease and the clinical features doctors should be more aware of. While other conservative medical journals are starting to publish more studies, reviews and commentaries of this common problem, it’s still too often presented as some rare condition that is difficult to treat when in fact it’s a common problem with a simple remedy.

Unfortunately, unlike bird or swine flu, celiac disease is not sexy enough for our media-driven society to highlight even though it’s worse than the flu. In fact, there is very little media coverage of celiac, no Jerry Lewis telethons, and no major campaigns to educate children or adults. Nor have we recovered from a decades-old mockery by the powers that be in medicine and government who more than ignored the problem. Lobbyists have long fought to protect the companies that make and sell gluten products from educational campaigns by government, schools and medical societies. Despite being first described by the Greek physician Aretaeus more than 2,000 years ago, most doctors today still ignore gluten sensitivity in their patients. But small numbers of sufferers and a hand full of health care professionals who knew the disease was real have been speaking out for many years, despite the ongoing ridicule, often being treated as fanatics with claims that celiac isn’t real in most patients.

Part of the problem has been that no drug or medical procedure can successfully treat celiac; however, a variety of prescription and over-the-counter drugs continue to be marketed to millions of patients to treat the signs and symptoms of the disease – from intestinal pain and discomfort, to fatigue and malabsorption of nutrients which brings an almost endless array of other possible symptoms from depression to dermatitis, headaches, and immune distress. Perhaps this was a part of the campaign to maintain a silence as to its existence – if millions of people no longer needed to take drugs to treat secondary symptoms, pharmaceutical companies would stand to lose billions of dollars.

Those carrying the gene for celiac disease, about a third of the population, can easily bring out the condition. Just eat enough wheat and you can trigger the celiac gene to express itself, resulting in the illness. This is just what’s been happening. Since 1950, the incidence of celiac disease has increased by almost 500%. It’s not just more recognition and diagnosis of the condition but a worsening of the pandemic. While the experts are still calling this explosion a “mystery,” it seems to be yet another example of environmental pressure – namely diet stress – on existing genes. In particular, it’s people stuffing down bagels, bread, pasta, cereal, muffins and many other foods containing gluten. It’s giving babies and young children wheat as their first and primary foods instead of vegetables, fruits and meats, and using wheat as a reward.

Signs & Symptoms
When celiac disease manifests, the body produces antibodies (literally meaning “against the body”) resulting in an autoimmune process that particularly affects the tiny fingerlike structures of the small intestine called villi. These villi are responsible for the absorption of nutrients from the food we eat. When these antibodies destroy the villi, numerous problems occur. Signs and symptoms of celiac disease typically involve the intestines producing diarrhea, malabsorption, pancreatic and gall bladder dysfunction and even cancer. But the disease also manifests itself across a wide spectrum of body areas beyond the intestines. For example, vague problems from nutritional malabsorption of can bring vitamin K and iron deficiencies, physical problems such as exhaustion, dermatitis (skin conditions), bone (osteoporosis) and muscle problems, adrenal dysfunction, and mental stress including depression. And, it can manifest as a disease process including type I diabetes, thyroid and liver disease, lupus, and chronic hepatitis. In addition, Down and Turner syndromes, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, alopecia areata, scleroderma and Sjorgen’s are other associated problems.

Assessment & Treatment
If you suspect celiac disease, a simple blood test may reveal the condition:
- endomysial antibody
- tissue transglutaminase antibody
- anti-gliadin antibody
- total serum IgA

The ability to evaluate these antibodies has made diagnosing celiac disease much easier and cost effective. Not long ago, intestinal biopsy – which required surgery – was the gold standard for a celiac disease diagnosis.

Another easier and effective way to assess the problem yourself can be accomplished by simply performing a dietary evaluation: Eliminate all gluten and see how you feel. As noted above, this includes all types of wheat and other gluten containing grains such as durum, semolina, spelt, kamut, rye, barley and triticale. You may have to read the labels on food packages as these ingredients are prevalent in many of them. And, it’s not unusual for a food without wheat to be processed in a manufacturing plant where wheat is used for other food, only to be contaminated by the “wheat-free” food item. Moreover, wheat and other offending items are often hidden ingredients in some food items. Beware of such foods and ingredients as instant coffee, beer and malt products, soy sauce, food coloring and flavoring, sugar, so-called “instant” foods, canned items, and even dietary supplements, and prescription and over-the-counter drugs.

Rather than be bogged down by the hundreds of packaged foods that may contain gluten, avoid them all and simply eat real and unprocessed food. By purchasing fresh vegetables and fruits, whole meats, eggs, real cheese, raw whole nuts and seeds, and other natural choices you can make safe, healthy and tastier meals without the risk of consuming wheat. And, you’ll save money. In addition, convenience items such as instant coffee and sauces, boxed cake and muffin mixes and other unhealthy foods that also may contain gluten are easily replaced with the real thing.

A small industry has evolved, taking advantage of those who are gluten intolerant. Unfortunately, the many of the processed food items are unhealthy: highly processed, high sugar, packaged convenience foods. Those seeking real health should avoid these as well.

Is such a simple treatment for such a potentially debilitating disorder that easy? Yes. I could fill a book with successful case histories of adults and children who have eliminated gluten to dramatically improve their health. More research is not needed. No drug or medical therapy will be found to cure the problem. There’s no newly developed surgical procedure that’s useful. No company will profit from therapy for celiac disease. In other words, too many businesses won’t benefit from celiac treatment, another reason it’s not discussed as much as other medical conditions.

The remedy for celiac disease is extremely simple – and it’s your choice. Avoid all wheat and all foods containing gluten. The Two Week Test, developed by Dr. Phil Maffetone about 30 years ago, can greatly help with this transition. He feels wheat is a major part of the problem of carbohydrate intolerance that affects the majority of the population. You might also look at the www.celiac.com website for a more extensive list of foods containing gluten.

Dr. Coralee Thompson is a frequent contributor to www.philmaffetone.com, and co-author of Healthy Brains, Healthy Children. For more information on the Two Week Test and other ways to get healthy without wheat and gluten-containing foods, see In Fitness and In Health by Dr. Philip Maffetone.