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Celiac Disease a Growing Problem: January 1, 2013

A decade ago, virtually no one in the U.S. seemed to have a problem eating gluten. Now, millions of people do, including Ray Cyr.

“It goes back probably about 4 years ago and it was about a year-long process before I actually got diagnosed correctly,” says Ray Cyr.

“If you did genetic testing on everyone you would find that about one in every 200 people has celiac disease. If you look at, the extreme illness, probably about one in 8,000 people,” says Dr. Michael Bays, gastroenterologist with Lee Memorial Health System’s medical staff.

Celiac disease is a digestive disorder caused by an abnormal immune response to gluten, which is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. The disease damages structures in the lining of the small intestine.

“When you ingest the wheat products and the small bowel becomes exposed to the wheat products, it becomes inflamed. The chronic inflammation causes the small bowel to thicken,” says Dr. Bays.

Ultimately, celiac can interfere with the body's absorption of nutrients.

“When I was first diagnosed I didn’t go out anywhere because I couldn’t confirm what I was eating was going to be safe for me,” says Cyr.

Americans are spending about $7 billion a year on products labeled gluten-free.  It made experts wonder if people were self-diagnosing. Now the days of guessing are gone since there’s a definitive test.

“They did biopsies in the small bowel in the early 50s, nowadays it’s a blood test that is about 95% sensitive and that’s why you’ve seen such a major increase,” says Dr. Bays.

Scientists believe there may be more celiac disease today because people eat more processed wheat products like pastas and baked goods. The disease also runs along family lines.

“If someone in your family has celiac disease you have about a 1 in 15 or 1 in 20 chance that you got it. It’s easy to diagnose,” says Dr. Bays.

The severity of symptoms vary greatly, so chances are many people are walking around with celiac and don’t know it yet.