Getting a Belly Full

Allrefer.comWe know our intestines are irritable at times. It usually goes about its work silently, processing our daily food intake, absorbing nutrients and vitamins and then preparing an exit for the products our bodies can no longer use. We only become aware of these functions when audible growling occurs, typically before or after eating or when something we eat doesn’t agree with us. Then we may feel more constant signs of distress with cramping, nausea or diarrhea. Usually these symptoms subside and we’re ready for the next meal. It seems Mother Nature has a fickle memory.

For some, digestive problems become much more serious if they develop a condition known as Celiac’s disease. In these people, they developed a genetic tendency for their intestines to react negatively to a substance called gluten, found in wheat and other grains. It’s a form of autoimmune disease—our bodies try to attack a harmless natural protein, as if it was a deadly virus or bacteria. In some of these people their symptoms are mild or possibly go unnoticed. Others may experience intense pain, develop diarrhea, develop skin rashes or fail to absorb needed nutrients resulting in weight loss and malnutrition.

Many of these unfortunate folks seek treatment from their physicians and receive a diagnosis of “irritable bowel“, a benign (usually harmless) condition caused by increased nerve activity in the intestines. We know that stress, whether physical or emotional, can indeed cause our belly to behave in erratic ways. It’s when these symptoms become persistent that we seek a more definitive answer to our problem.

Here’s where it gets tricky. When I was going to medical school the current teaching was that Celiac disease was rare; at that time this diagnosis occurred in less than 1% of patients with recurrent abdominal complaints. At that low a rate it became “out of sight, out of mind.” We didn’t bother trying to diagnosis something that was rarely seen. We relied on our existing knowledge that a patient’s symptoms more likely meant irritable bowel.

Now, researchers believe the disease is much more common than first thought. Much, much more common and it may start at any age. Making an correct diagnosis of Celiac disease is very important, as it can become controllable and for some, cured. By utilizing new blood tests that identify antibodies associated with Celiac disease and confirming a positive test with a small intestine biopsy, we can make an accurate diagnosis. And it’s not just an academic exercise. By having patients positively diagnosed with Celiac disease avoid wheat products and other foods containing gluten, the intestines can go back to their usual quiet state.

So when your intestinal problems become persistent ask your doctor about testing for Celiac disease. Remember that when it comes to getting answers for a distressing health problem it just takes guts.

About Steve P. Sanders

A general internist writing and sharing ideas and art.

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