In my work as an author, researcher, and gluten-free advocate, I strive to raise awareness for celiac disease and gluten intolerance because I know that with increased awareness will come more research, more correct diagnoses, and perhaps better treatment options. Illustrating this point, studies on the genetic links to celiac disease is leading to more research which may lead to new and more effective ways to treat the disease, an exciting prospect for celiacs who may want to enjoy some gluten now and then.
Celiac disease, an autoimmune disease which is caused by an allergic reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, affects about 1% of the population and 3 million Americans. The disease attacks the villi,the finger-like structure which line the small intestine, leading to stomach troubles and malabsorption of nutrients. Left untreated, it can cause severe health conditions and complications such as anemia, osteoporosis, miscarriage, and even cancer.
David van Heel, a gastrointestinal genetics professor at Barts and The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, headed a group of researchers from around the world who studied the genetic maps of more than 9,400 celiacs.
According to Celiac.com, British researchers have found what they term “substantial” evidence that the genes which are connected with celiac disease are also linked to other autoimmune disease such as rheumatoid arthritis. As a result, scientists are able to understand how the genetic risk factors for the disease operate—by changing the number of immune system genes that cells make. Furthermore, it is now understood that there are “hundreds” of genetic risk factors, which means that scientists should be able to “have a good guess at nearly half of the genetic risk at present,” van Heel wrote in the Nature Genetics journal in his published study.
Why is that only 3% of celiac Americans have been properly diagnosed? It’s likely that they or their doctors haven’t even heard of the disease. Research on celiac disease in the U.S. depends completely on the generosity of benefactors for its funding. Without charitable donations, there would be no way to continue this research and the efforts to raise awareness. Out of the estimated fifty autoimmune diseases that have been discovered by doctors, it is the only one for which research isn’t supported by the U.S. government.
I spent years running in circles with doctors who had no clue as to the cause of my painful symptoms, which finally drove me to research my symptoms on my own. I’m grateful to have been properly diagnosed, but managing the gluten-free diet can be a challenge. The prospect of a pill to offset genetic factors will appeal to many celiacs like myself. Although the treatment for celiac disease is simple, it calls for a lot of work and can be disheartening at times, requiring a total lifestyle change and a lot of homecooking.
With this genetic research in the area of celiac disease, we can look forward to more research, more awareness, and perhaps another treatment option. Meanwhile, it’s best to keep doing our parts to raise awareness and funds for research.
From our home to yours, Tina Turbin.