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Originally published August 7 2009

New Medical Mystery: Celiac Disease Soars, Deaths Quadruple

by S. L. Baker, features writer

(NaturalNews) People who have celiac disease can't tolerate gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley. If they do eat gluten, damage to the small intestine results and interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK), celiac disease was long thought to be a rare childhood disorder -- but no longer. More than two million Americans now have the disease and, for some unknown reason, cases have soared in recent decades.

In fact, a long-term Mayo Clinic study just published in the journal Gastroenterology has found that celiac disease is inexplicably more than four times more common today than it was 50 years ago. Another disturbing finding: the researchers discovered that people who didn't know they had celiac disease were about four times more likely than celiac-free subjects to have died during the 45 years of the study follow-up. Unfortunately, the scientists have no explanation.

"Celiac disease has become much more common in the last 50 years, and we don't know why," said Joseph Murray, MD, the Mayo Clinic gastroenterologist who led the study, in a statement to the media. "It now affects about one in a hundred people. We also have shown that undiagnosed or 'silent' celiac disease may have a significant impact on survival. The increasing prevalence, combined with the mortality impact, suggests celiac disease could be a significant public health issue."

When people with celiac disease eat gluten, finger-like projections on the surface of the intestines called villi that help absorb nutrients are damaged by an immune system attack. According to the NIDDK, the resulting symptoms in children often include abdominal bloating and pain, chronic diarrhea, vomiting, constipation, foul-smelling and fatty stools, and weight loss. Adults with celiac disease can have other symptoms, too, including unexplained iron-deficiency anemia, fatigue, bone or joint pain, arthritis, unexplained infertility, loss of teeth, depression or anxiety. They may even suffer prematurely from the bone-thinning disease known as osteoporosis.

Mayo Clinic scientists first began gathering blood samples from people stationed at Warren Air Force Base (AFB) in Wyoming between 1948 and 1954. The researchers looked for the antibody that people with celiac disease produce when they consume gluten. Mayo investigators then compared those blood test results with two other groups of antibody test results obtained recently from research subjects in Olmsted County, Minnesota. The results showed that young people today are 4.5 times more likely to have celiac disease than people who were young during the mid-20th century.

"Celiac disease is unusual, but it's no longer rare," Dr. Murray said. "Something has changed in our environment to make it much more common. Until recently, the standard approach to finding celiac disease has been to wait for people to complain of symptoms and to come to the doctor for investigation. This study suggests that we may need to consider looking for celiac disease in the general population, more like we do in testing for cholesterol or blood pressure."

In his statement to the press, Dr. Murray pointed out that his research team's findings indicate both the public and doctors need to be more aware of celiac disease and its symptoms. "Part of the problem is that celiac disease symptoms are variable and can be mistaken for other diseases that are more common, such as irritable bowel syndrome," he explained. "Some studies have suggested that for every person who has been diagnosed with celiac disease, there are likely 30 who have it but are not diagnosed. And given the nearly quadrupled mortality risk for silent celiac disease we have shown in our study, getting more patients and health professionals to consider the possibility of celiac disease is important."

Although the Mayo Clinic study doesn't suggest what could have happened in the environment to trigger more celiac disease, it is interesting to consider the sources of gluten people are exposed to today that differ from those in the past. For example, the NIDDK web site states that while most gluten comes from food, that's no longer the only source -- it is also found in everyday products such as medicines, vitamins, and lip balms. Another question worth considering: could genetically modified crops contain gluten that is more reactive in more human immune system?

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