I was at a work function recently and I met a new physician. She noticed that I was not eating any of the food from the dinner buffet and she asked me why. I told her that I have Celiac Disease and she asked me, “What is Celiac Disease?” It took me a minute to respond because I was so taken aback by the question. When I responded that I cannot eat gluten, she asked me, “What foods is gluten found in?” I went back to the basics in my explanation.
This encounter came about a month or two after I had another doctor ask me questions about my “gluten allergy” and whether or not I ever “cheat” on my diet. He told me that one of his relatives has Celiac Disease, but cheats all of the time.
That encounter came about 6 months after I was told by another M.D. that all Celiacs cheat on the gluten free diet because it is too difficult to follow. He shared with me that he has never met a patient who has been successful at eating gluten-free.
So, although I have not picked up a copy of “Harrison’s Principles of Internal Medicine” since medical school, as I am in a very different field, I marched into the library and began to read the 17th edition. Two of the 2500+ pages were devoted to “Celiac Sprue” (that is what it is called in this book). This is probably the last big, clunky edition of Harrison’s that many MDs have sitting in their offices for reference, as since then it has been widely available online.
Here are some of the things which I read (and what other doctors and practitioners may also be reading):
-Celiac disease is a common cause of malabsorption (true)
-it occurs in up to 1 in 113 people (true)
-although the cause is unknown, it is likely due to a combination of genetic, environmental, and immune factors (true)
-the hallmark findings are an abnormal small-intestinal biopsy showing villous blunting (photos of biopsies are shown) and response to a gluten-free diet (true)
-it may develop at any time during life (true)
-symptoms can come and go for years and years before diagnosis (true)
-symptoms include diarrhea, fatty stools, weight loss, nutrient deficiencies, anemia, bone disease, and/or iron deficiency anemia (true-but no discussion of all of the other symptoms and problems
which we now know celiac disease is associated with, like infertility, thyroid disease, joint pains, rashes, nerve inflammation, oral ulcers, ataxia, osteoporosis, etc.)
-it is associated with ingestion of gliadin, a protein component of gluten in wheat, rye, and barley (true-but no mention of oats often being a culprit as well due to heavy contamination with gluten)
-patients often have abnormally high levels of certain antibodies, such as IgA antigliadin, IgA endomysial, and IgA anti-TTG (true)
-10% of family members of celiacs may also be affected (true)
-Almost all patients are HLA-DQ2 positive. Absence of HLA-DQ2 excludes Celiac Disease (not true-we now know that about 8% of celiacs are HLA-DQ8 positive, and that a small number may actually not have either of the 2 main celiac genes).
-A small intestinal biopsy is required for diagnosis (this is not always the case anymore, a lot of people are diagnosed based on lab results, family history, and response to the GF diet; diagnostic
criteria are being revised)
-the most common cause of continued symptoms and lack of intestinal healing is continued ingestion of gluten (true, but the role other food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance, are not discussed)
-associated diseases include dermatitis herpetiformis, type 1 diabetes, and IgA deficiency (true-but no mention of all of the other problems which I discussed earlier)
-the most important complication is the development of cancers, like lymphoma (true)
Things which I am surprised were not mentioned in this textbook:
-that Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disorder
-that Celiac Disease can present without any gastrointestinal symptoms or anemia; the concept of “atypical” Celiac Disease
-that patients with Celiac Disease require follow-up testing, nutritional counseling, testing for bone density, vitamin levels, etc.
-that HLA-DQ8 is associated with the disease
This edition in my library was written in 2008. There was a more recent, 18th edition of the textbook, published in 2012, which I was able to access online. I was optimistic that it would
be much more up-to-date, which it was to a degree. There was a discussion of DQ8 as a genetic
marker. It also included the following very important statement:
“A much larger number of individuals have manifestations that are not obviously related to intestinal malabsorption, e.g., anemia, osteopenia, infertility, neurologic symptoms (“atypical celiac disease”); while an even larger group are essentially asymptomatic though with abnormal small intestinal histopathology and serologies and are referred to as “silent’ celiac disease.”
The problem is that this is very new publication, and if MDs are using the 2008 (or older) edition of the textbook, they are not going to be seeing this. A lot of younger physicians are using an online resource called “Up to Date,” which is continually updated and has all of the newer information on Celiac which seemed to be lacking in the textbook. There is also a wonderful section on Celiac Disease in “Up to Date” for patients and their families, which I hope to share soon.
Reviewing the internal medicine textbook, in conjunction with my recent interactions with other medical providers, reminded me that we all need to work together to continue to educate our families, friends, doctors, nurses, teachers, neighbors, etc. about Celiac Disease. I am trying to do my part. Will you help me?