Online alternative medicine advice about celiac disease often incorrect

May 8, 2019

A new study found incorrect or unproven information on diagnosis and treatment on majority of  alternative medicine websites

By Amy Ratner, Medical and Science News Analyst

Nearly 60 percent of claims about the diagnosis or treatment of celiac disease and gluten sensitivity made online by alternative medicine practitioners are wrong or unproven, according to a new a study by Columbia University researchers.

After noticing an increase in both celiac disease diagnosis and marketing claims made about the condition by naturopaths, integrative medicine clinics, homeopaths, acupuncturists and chiropractors, the researchers wondered if the two were linked and what that might mean for patients.

When they investigated, they found that the websites of many complementary and alternative medicine practitioners advertised diagnostic techniques or treatments for celiac disease or non-celiac gluten sensitivity that were either false or unproven.

In a study published in the American Journal of Gastroenterology, the researchers along with a colleague from the University of Alberta, Edmonton, concluded that increased regulation of complementary and alternative medicine advertising is needed to protect celiac disease patients and others.

Website review

The study was based on a review of the websites of 500 clinics in 10 U.S. cities, of which 36 percent made at least one claim about celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Researchers classified the treatments suggested on the sites as true, false or unproven.  Nearly 60 percent of 232 claims regarding celiac disease or gluten sensitivity were found to be false or unproven. Naturopaths were the most likely to make a claim about celiac disease, while integrative medicine practitioners were the most likely to make one about gluten sensitivity.

Celiac disease patients who cannot get their doctor to test for celiac disease even when they have symptoms or a family history of the genetic autoimmune condition often feel forced to look for answers elsewhere, said Alice Bast, Beyond Celiac CEO.

Some diagnose themselves and adopt a gluten-free diet without the necessary blood test and biopsy, but others turn to alternative medicine providers as described in the study, she said.

Read more: A new at-home test for celiac disease can speed diagnosis

“The study put evidence behind behavior we know is happening,” Bast said. “Hopefully, research that details the false and unproven claims made by alternative medicine practitioners will help  people who might have celiac disease or gluten sensitivity make more informed choices about diagnosis and treatment.”

And, hopefully, conventional physicians will recognize they could do a better job treating patients who have symptoms or family histories of celiac disease, she added.

Learn More: Talking to your family about celiac disease testing

Benjamin Lebwohl, MD, lead study author, agreed that complementary and alternative medicine often fills a void where people find conventional medicine lacking.

“In the case of celiac disease and non-celiac gluten sensitivity, some people may be seeking out these sources because of a lack of knowledge about celiac disease among medical practitioners, or because a doctor may reactive react dismissively when a patient asks about gluten,” he said. “There may be a sense of an unmet need being addressed by these alternative sources.”

Potential harm to patients

But he noted commonly found false or unproven claims make alternative medicine practitioners “an unreliable source that may ultimately harm patients.” Unproven claims noted in the study include that gluten is intrinsically inflammatory to everyone or that a gluten-free diet is proven to treat thyroid disease. Additionally, some sites offer unproven blood tests to identify which foods to avoid.

“These claims can not only be a waste of patients’ time and money,” said Lebwohl, director of clinical research at the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia University. “They may lead to delays in diagnosis of other conditions or may promote needlessly restrictive diets.”

You can read more about the study here.

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