3 Common Myths about Celiac Disease
It may be difficult for to believe misconceptions like these 3 Common Myths about Celiac Disease exist, but I assure you, they do. In fact, these are the misconceptions about Celiac Disease and a gluten-free diet I hear most often.
Even if YOU know the facts about CD, some people you’re close to may not.
Take a look at these…
Myth #1 – Celiac disease is the same as a wheat allergy.
Not even close.
Celiac disease is not a food allergy at all.
It is a genetic disorder of the immune system, often referred to as an autoimmune disorder. That means the body’s immune response is directed at its own tissue.
For CD, that description makes perfect sense. When individuals with CD consume gluten (the protein portion of grains like wheat, barley, and rye), the body responds by attacking the villi (small finger-like projections) of the small intestine. The villi become flat, making them inefficient at absorbing nutrients from foods consumed.
On the other hand, wheat allergy is a food allergy. In individuals with wheat allergy, when wheat is consumed, the body creates antibodies to combat the wheat protein. Antibodies are special immune cells that go on “seek and find” missions to rid the body of invaders. In the case of wheat allergy, wheat protein is the invader. While wheat allergy does elicit an immune response in the body (hives, nausea, difficulty breathing, and in severe cases, even anaphylaxis), it does not lead to damage of the small intestine like CD.
One reason the two are often confused is that in both CD and wheat allergy, all wheat products must be avoided.
The dietary difference is individuals with CD must avoid ALL gluten containing foods (wheat, barley, rye, spelt, etc., and their derivatives) while individuals with wheat allergy only need to avoid wheat, but are able to consume other gluten containing foods like barley, rye, etc., as long as there is not wheat or wheat contamination.
Myth #2 – Celiac disease is a “skinny person” disease.
Did you know some doctors won’t even test overweight patients for CD?! It is true.
I often receive email from many of you who, at the time you were diagnosed with CD, were overweight. In 100% of those emails, I read how you had great difficulty convincing a doctor to take you seriously and order testing when you suggested you might have CD. That is because you were overweight. Sadly, even physicians believe this myth about CD.
This myth probably stems from two ideas:
1. The dated belief CD was a childhood disease.
2. The idea that the poor nutrient absorption in individuals with CD would naturally cause them to be very thin. Malabsorption eventually leads to malnourishment, and is often related to being underweight.
It is true, many years ago, CD (then called Celiac Sprue) was considered a disease of underweight, poorly developing children. In fact, it was referred to as “failure to thrive”.
It is also true the inability to absorb nutrients due to CD’s damage to the small intestine lining can lead to malnutrition and weight loss (as well as the inability to gain weight).
BUT recent research shows 11% of children and 39% of adults with CD were overweight at the time of their diagnosis. Those are significant numbers that cannot be ignored.
If you feel you have CD and you are overweight, but your doctor refuses to test you, please consider a second opinion (and a new physician!). We know our bodies better than anyone does and it pays to listen.
Myth #3 – Celiac disease symptoms vanish once you go on a gluten-free diet.
It may take months, and in many cases it takes years, for the body to heal entirely from CD after going on a gluten-free diet.
Even for individuals who lack outward symptoms of CD, there is serious damage inside the body. Going on a strict gluten-free diet helps calm the havoc being wreaked on the small intestines and prevents further damage; however, keep in mind what was going on for years (in some cases decades!) prior to diagnosis:
- An immune system response each time gluten was consumed
- Tissue damage to the villi of the small intestine
- Inflammation in the small intestine
- Lack of adequate nutrient absorption
- All the “fallout” symptoms, illnesses, and disorders that resulted from having CD (Iron Deficiency Anemia, other vitamin and mineral deficiencies, other autoimmune disorders related to CD, chronic pain, fatigue, etc.)
That’s not to say you won’t begin feeling better very soon after beginning a gluten-free diet, though. Take me, for example. Twenty-five years of chronic pain literally went away after only three days after beginning my gluten-free diet nearly five years ago. BUT there were other issues that took longer to go away.
And keep in mind – if you accidentally ingest gluten (or if you cheat a little on your gluten-free diet), that causes damage, too, and the process of healing must begin again.
Remember, if gluten does somehow get in, you can use these tips to calm your system and get back on the road to recovery.
These 3 Common Myths about Celiac Disease are an excellent starting place if you’re looking for a few facts to share. By sharing facts with others about Celiac disease, we not only help them understand our situation, we also help raise awareness about CD.