Long-Term Health Risks of Untreated Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is a chronic autoimmune disease, where exposure to gluten can lead to a harmful reaction in the small intestine. If the disease is left untreated, this immune response can damage the intestinal surface. Long-term untreated celiac disease may also lead to villous atrophy, which is the destruction of finger-like projections in the intestine that are responsible for absorption of various nutrients.
Celiac disease is immensely challenging to diagnose as every case is entirely different from the other. Although gastrointestinal symptoms like chronic diarrhea, bloating, abdominal pain are common, but they are not necessarily present in every situation. In fact, till date more than 200 symptoms of the celiac disease have been documented, that highlights the difficulty in the diagnosis of the ailment. Further, there is no single 100% specific laboratory test for it.
Although acute symptoms of celiac disease would mostly be related to gastrointestinal disturbances, however, long-term consequences are more due to ensuing malnutrition and chronic inflammation. Thus, a person may have a deficiency of vitamins, minerals, weight loss, and so on. Since gut health is highly related to cognition, untreated celiac may have grave consequences for mental health.
Here are some of the most common long-term consequences of untreated celiac disease are:
Anemia due to iron deficiency
Long-term intestinal disturbances often lead to malabsorption of iron and iron deficiency anemia. Iron deficiency anemia may further worsen the symptoms of celiac disease. In some cases, anemia could be the leading symptom of celiac. Iron deficiency anemia may occur due to poor absorption of iron and a chronic loss of blood in the intestinal tract. Further, intestinal damage in celiac disease leads to reduced production of proteins that are essential for iron intake by the intestine.
Iron is vital for the production of red blood cells and of an oxygen-carrying compound called hemoglobin. Anemia causes chronic fatigue, emotional distress, and physical weakness, all of which are frequent symptoms of celiac disease, especially since it affects almost one-third of patients.
Osteoporosis or osteopenia
Thinning or weakening of bones due to mineralization is common in celiac disease. In some atypical cases, it may be the sole symptom of the disease. Individuals above the age of 50 are at a much higher risk of developing osteoporosis; this risk is much higher in post-menopausal women. Individuals with osteoporosis are at higher risk for fracturing their spine, hip, and arms.
The primary reason for the higher prevalence of osteoporosis in celiac disease is a deficiency of calcium and other nutrients because of direct damage to the intestinal surface in the disease. Those taking drugs like steroids are at even greater risk of bone demineralization. Fortunately, timely diagnosis, and switching to a gluten-free diet is extremely beneficial in reversing many of the adverse effects of the disease.