Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Celiac Symptoms and Learning Problems

Celiac Disease is an autoimmune disease in which the presence of gluten leads to intestinal damage which impairs absorption of fats, vitamins and minerals. It can also cause a severe rash known as dermititis herpiformis which causes an itchy painful rash. The impaired absorption of vitamins and minerals means that celiac can present in a myriad of ways. The most well known presentation of celiac is the "classic" presentation of severe stomach aches, diarrhea and an individual that is wasting away. These individuals are notoriously picky eaters. In infants, a round belly, low muscle tone, skinny chicken leg and poor growth can all be signs of this malabsorption syndrome. In young children, constant mouth sores, stomach aches with diarrhea or constipation and moodiness can be signs. But, the very tricky part about celiac, is that many people have what is known as "silent celiac." They have no gut issues suggesting celiac. Instead, their symptoms are a result of the malabsorption of fats, vitamins and minerals.

My involvement with the Celiac Disease Center at Columbia has allowed me to speak to many people who have been diagnosed with celiac and the symptoms which led to their diagnosis. The stories are remarkable. One young man was diagnosed with a learning disability and went to a facility that did a thorough physical evaluation--including testing for celiac. It is hard to believe that a disease with origins in the gut can affect the brain and learning. But, when you have celiac and you eat gluten, you don't absorb fat. In recent years, dietary fats have been lumped together and viewed as unhealthy. But certain fats (omega 3's found in fish oil) are necessary for proper brain development and structure.

Correcting these deficiencies of omega 3's can often lead to an improvement in learning. The child of a friend of mine who has celiac went from a school for learning disabled children to honor role at a mainstream school after taking fish oil. The gluten free diet is often not enough to heal the complications of celiac. Correcting the nutritional deficiencies is also a critical part of healing.

Other fats, such as saturated fats are necessary building blocks of the hormones in our body. When you have celiac and aren't absorbing these vitally important fats, many systems can be affected and learning problems, infertility and depression can all develop. And cholesterol is also critical for optimal brain development and function as described in Learning, Your Memory and Cholesterol.

Because the prescription for celiac disease is dietary and the symptoms of eating gluten are not life threatening, sometimes it is viewed as not that serious. But many organs can be affected by the lack of vitamins, minerals and fats. In addition, celiac is an autoimmune disease and your risks of getting a second autoimmune disease are higher if you have untreated celiac.

I believe genetic and antibody testing should be done in any child who has symptoms of celiac with a learning or developmental problem.

In our family, many family members had severe gut issues, physical issues and neurological problems until a GI doctor tried to rule out celiac by doing a gene test and stumbled upon two genes for celiac when my son had all the classic symptoms of celiac disease. I am forever grateful for the doctor who did the genetics to "rule out" celiac--and couldn't.


Susan M said...

Thanks for this great post! My 3yo has many of the symptoms you talked about and has been diagnoses with autism. I had never even heard of Celiacs when I took him off of gluten and casein containing foods in May. In July he had some scopes done and the biopsy came back inconclusive for Celiac sprue, but the genetics and syptoms were there. Unfortunately the GI would not diagnose him with Celiac disease which I am fighting for because the schools are demanding that for when he goes to school. Sooo...after 8 months on the diet he is now "regular" and his autistic traits are fading day by day! I do believe that for him at least Celiac was the underlying problem and what was causing his nuerological deficits!

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Jackie said...

My son was diagnosed with several food allergies including dairy, egg whites, wheat and soy. I feel like if they had tested him for Celiac before I made the dietary changes he would have tested positive. However, he has never been tested, but I believe he has it. He has made very great improvements in his behavior in the past year. He is still a picky eater and I am having trouble getting him to take his vitamins now. I want to get him on fish oil, but don't know how to get him to take it without force. Do you have any suggestions? Thanks for all of your informative posts.

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