It’s a condition affecting tens of thousands of New Zealanders. It causes symptoms from digestive issues to bone and joint pain, and even neurological issues. Yet it’s often dismissed as a food intolerance.

Coeliac Awareness Week, which runs from 10-16 June, aims to encourage New Zealanders to take coeliac disease seriously.

“Coeliac disease is a permanent autoimmune disorder with significant symptoms and consequences. It goes far beyond the digestive system,” says Dana Alexander, General Manager of Coeliac New Zealand.

Apart from digestive issues such as diarrhoea, cramping, nausea, vomiting, bloating and constipation, people with coeliac disease may suffer neurological symptoms, bone and joint pain, skin rashes and ulcerations, and more.

For people with coeliac disease, the natural defences in their body mistake gluten for a threat and release antibodies to fight it, leading to inflammation of the bowel and a host of related symptoms and medical problems. The only treatment for the condition is to completely avoid gluten.

Avoiding gluten means not only avoiding wheat-based bread, but also pasta, cereals and many food starches, preservatives, soy sauce and stabilisers made with wheat. Gluten can even be found in medicines, vitamins and in lip balms. Coeliac NZ offers support for people with coeliac disease and non-coeliac gluten sensitivity to live coeliac-safe for life, which means avoiding gluten completely.

“While many people choose to eat gluten free foods for other reasons, the only effective way to treat coeliac disease is to follow a gluten-free diet for life,” says Alexander.

An estimated 60-70,000 New Zealanders are estimated to have coeliac disease, but up to 80% of those don’t know it. If undiagnosed, coeliac disease can cause long-term poor health and even osteoporosis, depression and an increased risk of throat and intestinal cancer.

“If people understood what is wrong with them, they could save themselves a lot of discomfort and potentially serious medical consequences,” says Alexander.

“The average time from symptoms to diagnosis is 11 years and by that time, long-term damage may have occurred,” says Alexander.

People who have coeliac disease without knowing are often anaemic because of associated problems with absorbing nutrients. They can experience signs and symptoms that are mistaken for something else, or may not show symptoms at all.

Kiwis are encouraged to do the self-assessment test on the Coeliac NZ website – www.coeliac.org.nz. If the online test suggests medical diagnosis is advisable, Coeliac NZ strongly recommends seeing your doctor.

Seven insights into coeliac disease 

  1. An estimated 60,000 to 70,000 New Zealanders have coeliac disease, but up to 80% are unaware they have the condition.
  2. The symptoms of coeliac disease can vary from diarrhoea, cramping, bloating, constipation, nausea, vomiting and weight loss to skin rash, ulceration, fatigue, ‘brain fog’ and neurological issues. Some people can have no signs or symptoms before being diagnosed with coeliac disease.
  3. If undiagnosed, coeliac disease can cause long-term poor health and even osteoporosis, depression and an increased risk of throat and intestinal cancer.
  4. There is no known cure for coeliac disease. The only effective course of action for sufferers is to follow a strict life-long gluten-free diet – which can become challenging to safely manage when eating away from the home.
  5. Coeliac disease tends to occur in family groups – if anyone in the family has coeliac disease, 10% of their direct relatives usually have the condition too.
  6. Apart from bread, pasta and cereals, gluten can lurk in food starch, preservatives, soy sauce and stabilisers made with wheat, in medicines, vitamins and even in lip balms.
  7. You can take the online assessment on www.coeliac.org.nz to see if you’re at risk of coeliac disease.
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