Food made from wheat and other gluten-containing flours may satisfy certain palates. But it sickens those who are allergic to gluten, a group whose numbers may be growing.
The United Kingdom has experienced a 400 percent spike in diagnoses of that disorder (celiac disease) over the last 22 years, according to a new study.
Nevertheless, study researchers concluded that the disorder is under-diagnosed in the UK, where those who support celiac research and people with the disorder are campaigning for UK grocers to sell more gluten-free foods.
Joe West, MS, PhD, of the University of Nottingham in Nottingham, England, was the study’s lead author.
Dr. West and his team of researchers reviewed the medical codes in the UK’s Clinical Practice Research Datalink and earmarked celiac disease diagnoses between 1990 and 2011. They counted 9,037 cases of celiac disease during that period to conclude that the number of diagnosed celiac disease cases had increased four-fold during the last 22 years.
These researchers also estimated that fewer people with celiac disease were going undiagnosed. Previously, the UK’s National Institute for Health & Care Excellence estimated that between 10 and 15 percent of celiac disease cases were diagnosed, but that the figure now hovers at 24 percent, according to this new study.
“Of course, increasing numbers [of people] with a diagnosis is good news and will inevitably mean that there will be an increased demand for gluten-free products in supermarkets. But the three-quarters undiagnosed is around 500,000 people, a shocking statistic that needs urgent action,” Sarah Sleet, chief executive of Coeliac UK, said in a press statement.
Her organization funded the study, which focuses solely on UK residents with celiac disease. In the US, however, an estimated 1 in 133 people — about 1 percent of the population — has celiac disease. An estimated 83 percent of Americans with celiac disease are not diagnosed.
The surge in Americans and others who've gone gluten-free and are buying pricier gluten-free breads, cereals and other foods may not be deriving any measurable benefits from making that switch, some health researchers contend.
Wheat, barley and rye contain gluten, a protein that people with celiac disease can't digest. Symptoms of celiac disease may vary from mild to severe. They include bloating, diarrhea, constipation, anemia, missed menstrual periods, thin bones, difficulty gaining weight, stunted growth, joint pain, numbness, teeth that are discolored or losing their enamel and itchy skin.
Carolyn Dean, MD, ND, told dailyRx News that it's important to ask why celiac disease, a genetic disorder, seems to be on the rise.
"Genes take centuries to change and don’t happen in one generation. We do know that wheat has been hybridized to contain much more gluten than [it contained] 100 years ago," said Dr. Dean, a member of the Nutritional Magnesium Association's medical advisory board.
At the same time, magnesium and zinc, which help the body digest gluten, are less plentiful in the food supply than in years past, Dr. Dean added.
While she suggested there needs to be more scientific studies on the effects of not eating gluten-containing grains, she also said no one should automatically assume "that gluten should be avoided for the rest of a person’s life."
It's better for a person who is concerned about gluten to have their magnesium and zinc levels tested, she said. "If they are low, supplement them with well-absorbed minerals and then see if ... gluten sensitivity diminishes as ... magnesium and zinc levels improve."
She continued, "Magnesium is important for the proper functioning of between 700 [and] 800 enzyme systems in the body and zinc governs about 100. Included in both are enzyme systems that are related to the regulation of digestion."
Celiac disease is more common in women — especially older women — than in men.
Untreated, celiac disease can cause infertility, loss in bone density and small bowel cancer, the researchers wrote.
One way that people with celiac disease can stay healthier is to remove gluten-containing foods from their diets. That annual campaign for more gluten-free foods for sale in UK markets, "Gluten-free Guarantee," also kicked off this month.
In addition to spotlighting cases of celiac disease, this study also calculated the number of people with both celiac disease and dermatitis herpatiformis — a severe skin rash and skin blistering. It also results from an intolerance to gluten but less often. In the UK, one out of every 100 people had celiac disease during the study period. That compared to 1 out of every 3,300 with dermatitis herpatiformis, researchers wrote.
From 1990 through 2011, there were 800 cases of dermatitis herpatiformis (Duhring's disease) in the UK. During the same period, 411 people had both disorders.
The research by Dr. West and colleagues was published online May 12 in American Journal of Gastroenterology.
These researchers reported that they had no financial investments or other ethical conflicts that would shape study design, outcomes and analysis.