Celiac disease is major public health problem worldwide. It’s an autoimmune condition that affects 1 in 100 people. However, most people with celiac disease don’t fully understand it, or even realise they have it!
New research on the condition is emerging left, right, and centre. Scientists are working hard to learn what causes celiac disease, how best to diagnose it, and which mental and physical health consequences can arise if it isn’t managed appropriately.
Before we get onto discussing some of the mental health challenges that celiac disease can provoke, first, let’s consider who such challenges apply to. In other words, who is classified as “celiac”?
Many people claim to be gluten intolerant. However, this is very different to having an autoimmune reaction to gluten. One of the major differences is that the long-term health consequences of consuming gluten can be much more severe if you are celiac.
Considerably more women than men have celiac disease. But, the symptoms of the condition can be the same as those of gluten intolerance. And, you could experience no symptoms whatsoever. Then, how do you know for sure that you’re celiac?
There are definitely genetic determinants of celiac disease. However, the best way to get a definitive diagnosis is to have both of the following:
- a blood test for anti-TTG antibodies (to see if your immune system is reacting to gluten), and
- a biopsy of some cells lining your gut (to see if they look like they’ve been damaged by gluten).
Once you’re diagnosed, there’s no cure for celiac disease. The only therapy is to follow a strict gluten-free diet, for life. With this in mind, let’s look at some of the common mental health implications of living with celiac disease.
People often think of celiac disease as something that only affects a person’s digestive system. But, that’s not the case. Celiac disease also affects the immune system and the nervous system.
Why is this?
In celiac disease, your immune system attacks gluten as if it’s a dangerous or harmful substance. When you eat foods containing gluten, such as bread, pasta, and baked goods, the gluten travels along your digestive tract to your bowels. Here, in your gut, lie the majority of your immune cells.
Every time your immune system is triggered by gluten, inflammation spreads throughout your body. This is why untreated or poorly managed celiac disease can increase your risk of:
- apathy (no lust for life),
- irritability, and
- schizophrenia (a mood disorder).
Not to worry! Research shows that if you strictly remove gluten from your diet, these neurological and psychiatric symptoms can be reversed. However, it could be 12 months or more before you start to see improvements in your mental health after following a strict gluten-free diet.
If you have celiac disease, it’s important to take time to learn which foods contain gluten and how to avoid it, so that your gut – and the rest of your body – can heal.
Author:Sophie Ash is a digestive health specialist, instructor of ‘The Fundamentals of IBS Management”, and freelance medical writer based in Toronto. To read Sophie’s blog and learn more about her course, visit www.onyourplate.ca. To hire her for a medical education or marketing project, visit www.sophieash.online.