In this month’s series on celiac disease, I’ve talked about nutrition and potential deficits to be aware of. I’ve talked about the many benefits of exercise for someone with celiac disease. I’ve talked about the specific challenges of weight management when on a gluten free diet. I’m finishing the series with a look at other health conditions that can exist alongside or develop as a consequence of untreated celiac disease.
Complications of celiac disease
I’ve talked about my experience with iron deficiency and looked further into why vitamin deficiencies often occur alongside celiac disease. Left unchecked, this can turn into malnutrition in extreme cases and cause a host of dangerous and scary symptoms. Generally, malabsorption resolves after adopting a gluten free diet, though it’s important to pay attention to certain nutrients and their food sources to assure you’re not missing anything vital.
Celiacs are more likely to develop lactose intolerance alongside their gluten intolerance. This makes digesting milk and milk products difficult, and can lead to diarrhea and other stomach symptoms. Again, the treatment for this is avoiding dairy products, though there are options with lactose-free products available. Unlike celiac disease, lactose intolerance does not cause any long-term damage. You may be able to resume eating dairy eventually, after your body adjusts to the new gluten free diet.
Increased risk of bowel cancer and lymphoma
One of the scariest complications of celiac disease is that left untreated, it can lead to an increased risk of bowel cancer and lymphoma. It’s a small increase in risk over the general population, but one not to be ignored. The risk drops to normal after a year of maintaining a strictly gluten free diet. The gluten free diet must be maintained for life to avoid this risk.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS)
IBS has many of the same symptoms as celiac disease, and is often diagnosed instead. (I received an IBS diagnosis after “failing” the celiac test the first time.) It’s a lifelong condition that causes stomach cramps, bloating, diarrhea and constipation. In the United Kingdom, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) guidelines for diagnosing IBS state that celiac disease should be ruled out first.
It is possible to have both celiac and IBS; The Patient Celiac described her experience with both after discovering multiple food sensitivities beyond gluten. IBS is treated with dietary and lifestyle changes; if you suspect you have both, talk to your doctor about how best to manage the two.
Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD)
IBD is a category of diseases made up of ulcerative colitis and Crohn’s disease. Celiac disease and Crohn’s disease both relate to inflammation of the intestines and have some similar symptoms like abdominal pain, diarrhea and anemia. Though there’s some debate about the specifics, research has shown that Crohn’s disease is more common in celiacs than in the general population.
Unlike celiac disease, Crohn’s disease symptoms don’t always go away with a gluten free diet. From medication to surgery, there are a number of treatments available to lessen the severity of symptoms and frequency of flare ups.
Type 1 Diabetes
Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the immune system attacks and destroys the specialized cells in the pancreas that produce insulin. This results in high blood sugar and can cause blood vessel and nerve damage. About 8% of people with type 1 diabetes also have celiac disease, compared to 1% of the general population. As such, it’s often recommended that people just diagnosed with type 1 diabetes be screened for celiac disease.
Managing both celiac disease and type 1 diabetes can present some particular dietary challenges. The Celiac Disease Foundation has some resources to help.
Thyroid disease refers to any malfunction of the thyroid, a gland in the neck. It produces hormones that regulate how the body uses energy, and too much or too little of the hormones can cause a number of symptoms. Celiac patients are four times more likely to have thyroid problems than the general population. One study recommends that everyone diagnosed with thyroid disease be screened for celiac disease.
The treatment for thyroid disease depends on the type of problem (if it’s over- or under-producing hormones.) Dietary changes and medication are two common treatments. For a first-hand experience of celiac and thyroid disease, check out The Gluten Free Blogger.
There are other co-occurring issues with celiac disease, often autoimmune in nature, which I haven’t covered here today. These are just the most common. If you think you might be suffering from something else alongside your celiac disease, please make a visit to your doctor or GP to follow up on your concerns. None of the above should be taken as medical advice!
Did you know about the problems that can develop from untreated celiac disease, or these common co-occurring celiac disease health issues? Have you had any first-hand experience with any of these that you’d like to share? Tell me in the comments!