What is Celiac Awareness Day and who is Samuel Gee?
September 13 is “National Celiac Disease Awareness Day” in honor of the doctor who identified a link between celiac disease and diet. Dr. Samuel Gee, an English physician and a leader in celiac disease research, was born on September 13, 1839.
A Senate resolution calling for the commemoration was unanimously approved in 2010. In marking the awareness day, the Senate “recognizes that all people of the United States should become more informed and aware of celiac disease,” the resolution noted.
In 1887, Gee first presented the modern definition of celiac disease at a lecture at the Hospital for Sick Children in London. He also theorized that the disease needed to be treated through food, saying that he believed if a person were to be cured it would be through their diet. Gee tried multiple types of diets with his patients, including a Dutch mussel diet. However, during his lifetime he was never able to pinpoint which food triggered the disease.
However, Gee was right that it was something in these patients’ diets that was causing a number of reactions and symptoms. In the 1920s, Dr. Sidney Haas believed he found a cure for the disease: the banana diet. This diet worked for those with celiac disease because it was unintentionally free of gluten, the protein ultimately found to cause celiac disease. Patients on the diet, mainly children, were prescribed to eat numerous bananas a day along with dairy products, meat and vegetables, while eliminating all starches. Their health improved. This was considered a major breakthrough because previously many children with celiac disease had died from the affliction. Unfortunately for these children, wheat, a prime source of gluten, was reintroduced to their diets once they started feeling better, leading to a return of celiac disease symptoms and lasting intestinal damage in some.
It wasn’t until 1952 that the true cause of the celiac disease was discovered. With Gee’s research and the combined efforts of many more after him, we now know that celiac disease is actually a serious genetic autoimmune disorder triggered by consuming gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye.
Celiac disease is a serious genetic autoimmune disease triggered by consuming gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye.
When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the protein triggers a reaction that interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food by damaging a part of the small intestine called villi. Damaged villi impair the absorption of nutrients into the bloodstream, leading to malnourishment and a host of other problems: Thyroid disease, osteoporosis, infertility, the onset of other autoimmune diseases, and some cancers.
One out of every 133 Americans has celiac disease, equivalent to nearly 1% of the U.S. population. Unfortunately, 83% of the 3 million Americans living with celiac disease remain undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. Because its wide array of signs and symptoms are not unique to celiac disease, it can be difficult to identify. While some people have the “typical” celiac disease symptoms of diarrhea, , abdominal pain, weight-loss or failure to thrive, others can have an atypical or a “silent” presentation of the disease. Symptoms ranging from fatigue to migraines to joint pain and anemia can be signs of undiagnosed celiac disease. (For a full list of symptoms visit beyondceliac.org/celiac-disease/symptoms.)
Celiac disease is a genetic disorder, meaning that it passes from parent to child via DNA. However, having the genes for celiac disease does not necessarily mean that a person will develop it. In some cases, stressful events such as pregnancy, surgery, infection, or severe emotional distress can trigger the onset of the disease. Both men and women are at risk for celiac disease. People of any age or race can develop this genetic autoimmune condition. However, there are some factors that can increase your risk of developing celiac disease such has having a blood relative with the disease, having another autoimmune disease, having Down Syndrome or Type 1 Diabetes, or having the LA-DQ2 gene or HLA-DQ8 gene. (If you’re want to learn more or are wondering if you have celiac disease, visit DoIHaveCeliac.Org.)
Those who think they might have celiac disease should continue to eat foods that contain gluten until they have been tested for the condition. A blood test, followed by a biopsy. are used by physicians to diagnose celiac disease. The test results may not be not accurate if a person is on the gluten-free diet.
If someone has already gone gluten-free but wants to know if they have celiac disease, they would have to undergo a gluten challenge—ie, eat gluten again—before having blood tests. Consult with your primary care or GI doctor about undertaking a gluten challenge.
Genetic tests can also play a role in diagnosis, but since many people have the genes associated with celiac disease but not the disease itself, these tests are not definitive. However, if someone does not have the genes, it is very unlikely they have celiac disease.
For those that have been diagnosed with celiac disease, currently the only treatment is a strict gluten-free diet. It’s important to take the diet seriously so that intestinal villi can heal. (For resources on going gluten-free visit BeyondCeliac.org.) It’s important to talk to family members about getting tested as well. Since the gluten-free diet is currently the only a way to manage the disease, and research shows that it often does not completely prevent symptoms and intestinal damage, celiac disease experts and advocacy groups like Beyond Celiac are working to get new treatments and, ultimately, a cure. Together, and with patients’ help, they are pushing to make a world without celiac disease a reality. Anyone with this disease can help by participating in research and telling their story at Go.BeyondCeliac.org.