Understanding Celiac disease, how it impacts a sufferer

ByHeather Grubola WPVI logo
Monday, April 12, 2021
Understanding Celiac disease, how it impacts a sufferer
Getting diagnosed can take years and symptoms can mimic other ailments, but celiac is a serious autoimmune disease that can lead to heart disease, bowel cancer and potential infertility in women.

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- In this week's Moves in Medicine, we take a closer look at celiac disease. Many people don't know they have it, but experts at Temple Health say it still impacts their lives.

"I actually have celiac. So it's, it's I've had to live through this," said Veronica Bersani.

Bersani, a clinical nutritionist at Temple Health, knows first-hand how celiac patients struggle. First, getting diagnosed can take years. Sometimes the symptoms are gastrointestinal.

"You may have reflux, belly pain, nausea, diarrhea, constipation," she said.

But they can also mimic other ailments.

"You could have headaches, even migraines. You could have fatigue, joint pain, even ADHD symptoms," she said.

Whatever the symptoms, celiac is a serious autoimmune disease.

"Your body's immune system is actually attacking its own healthy cells by mistake," said Dr. Neena Mohan, a gastroeneterologist.

Dr. Mohan says inflammation in the small intestine cuts the absorption of important food nutrients. She uses antibody blood tests, then an endoscopy to diagnose it.

"We take biopsies to confirm the diagnosis," she said.

Meanwhile, Bersani has patients keep a food diary, and a feelings diary.

"That way I can say, OK, when you ate this, did you notice something right away," she said.

The treatment is a strict gluten-free diet. So, no wheat, barley, or rye or the many foods with traces of those.

"It can be very overwhelming," she said.

"But it's really important to stick to that diet," said Dr. Mohan.

And patients must also avoid things which contact gluten.

"Remember, the gluten protein is invisible. So if you touch bread and then touch my plate, I can get sick, potentially," said Bersani.

An early diagnosis can head off more than digestive problems. Celiac patients have a greater risk of heart disease, bowel cancers, and in women, possibly infertility.