Around one in 100 people suﬀers from coeliac disease, a condition in which the small INTESTINE fails to digest and absorb food, but many have no or few symptoms and remain undiagnosed. The intestinal lining is permanently sensitive to the protein gliadin (an insoluble and potentially toxic PEPTIDE protein) which is contained in GLUTEN, a constituent of the germ of wheat, barley and rye. As bread or other grain-based foods are a regular part of most people’s diet, the constant presence of gluten in the intestine of suﬀerers of coeliac disease causes atrophy of the digestive and absorptive cells of the intestine. Children are usually diagnosed when they develop symptoms such as vomiting, diarrhoea, lethargy, ANAEMIA, swollen abdomen and pale, frothy, foul-smelling faeces with failure to thrive. The diagnosis is usually made by a positive blood antibody test such as antiendomysial antibodies. However, because there may be an occasional false positive result, the ‘gold standard’ is to obtain a biopsy of the JEJUNUM through a tiny metal capsule that can be swallowed, a specimen taken, and the capsule retrieved. Though coeliac disease was long thought to occur in childhood, a second peak of the disorder has recently been identiﬁed among people in their 50s.
Not all suﬀerers from coeliac disease present with gastrointestinal symptoms: doctors, using screening techniques, have increasingly identiﬁed large numbers of such people. This is important because researchers have recently discovered that untreated overt and silent coeliac disease increases the risk of suﬀerers developing osteoporosis (brittle bone disease – see BONE, DISORDERS OF) and cancer. The osteoporosis develops because the bowel fails to absorb the CALCIUM essential for normal bone growth. Because those with coeliac disease lack the enzyme LACTASE, which is essential for digesting milk, they avoid milk – a rich source of calcium.
The key treatment is a strict, lifelong diet free of gluten. As well as returning the bowel lining to normal, this diet results in a return to normal bone density. People with coeliac disease, or parents or guardians of aﬀected children, can obtain help and guidance from the Coeliac Society of the United Kingdom. (See also MALABSORPTION SYNDROME; SPRUE.)