I’ve spent five years—yes, five years! —trying to get my family members tested for celiac disease. After I was diagnosed with the condition in 2005, I urged my mom, dad and two brothers to get tested. (Approximately 10 percent of first-degree relatives are affected.) I made a point of talking up how much better I felt gluten free, cooking great gluten-free foods and maintaining a really positive attitude. But no one got tested.
Last year when a dear family friend became sick with cancer, scared, my mom finally agreed to get tested. Fortunately, my mom doesn’t have celiac disease.
I still have work to do with my dad (a doctor) and two brothers, but a new study, presented at a major medical meeting last week, strengthens my case.
Researchers from Finland screened 3,000 healthy, asymptomatic family members of celiac patients. They then randomly assigned 40 participants who had positive celiac antibodies (endomysial antibody, EmA) to a gluten-free or regular diet for one year.
Even though participants thought they were asymptomatic, after a one-year trial on the gluten-free diet, many realized they had, in fact, suffered from gastrointestinal symptoms and a lower health-related quality of life while on a gluten-containing diet.
Researchers say it’s unclear why some celiacs have severe symptoms while others don’t, but it’s possible people “adapt” to minor symptoms over time, only recognizing them once they feel better.
Intestinal mucosa and minor vitamin deficiencies also improved after one year on the gluten-free diet. Researchers found a trend toward improvements in bone mineral density too. (Low bone density is a common complication of long-term, undiagnosed celiac disease.) At the end of the study, most (85 percent) of the participants were willing to continue on the gluten-free diet.
Based on their findings, researchers concluded that asymptomatic celiacs benefit from early detection and treatment with the gluten-free diet, and that screening of high risk groups—like first-degree relatives—is justifiable and encouraged.
Note to my family: Are you listening?
Christine Boyd is Living Without's medical writer.