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'A major life change' People with celiac disease undergo a radical shift in diet W
Celiac disease, with symptoms ranging from diarrhea to extreme malnutrition, affects about one in every 133 people

 Tina Maurer studies cereal labels to find a brand that doesn't contain gluten.
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Date published: 7/23/2006

HEN SHE turned 50, Tina Maurer of North Stafford followed the standard advice of doctors and went to get a colonoscopy.

While she was at the office, the doctor also ordered an endoscopy to check her esophagus and small intestine, because he thought she had been on an acid-reflux medication for too long.

What the doctor found was that the lining of her small intestine was damaged--she had celiac disease.

Celiac is an autoimmune disorder that damages or destroys the lining of the small intestine because the body can't digest gluten, the protein found in grains including wheat.

Without the structures on the lining called villi, the intestine is unable to absorb the necessary vitamins and nutrients from food.

Symptoms of celiac range from diarrhea to extreme malnutrition. Common symptoms are similar to those of indigestion.

The cause is unknown, but it is at least partially genetic.

Maurer said her father suffered symptoms similar to hers, though he was never diagnosed with the disease.

"He was eating Tums and Mylanta all the time," Maurer recalled.

Stressful or traumatic incidents can trigger an onset of the disease in people who are predisposed to it.

Maurer said she doesn't know what brought on her disease, but she does know she's in for a lifetime of very different eating than she's used to.

The only treatment for the disease is to give up all gluten, which is what Maurer did.

Gluten is a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye.

"At first it was very scary," Maurer said. "I went to the grocery store, which normally takes me 20 minutes, and it took me an hour and a half, reading every label to see what was in it."

Celiac is believed to affect about one out of every 133 people, according to the Web site for the University of Maryland Center for Celiac Research. But the disease is grossly under-diagnosed because of its varying symptoms.

Dr. Kenneth Josovitz of Associates in Gastroenterology in Woodbridge, Manassas and Stafford, said that for every patient who is diagnosed with celiac, seven more go undiagnosed.

Many people don't get tested because they don't think they're sick enough, Josovitz said.

"There's a large number of people with some bloating, cramping, excess gas and they're not concerned enough to seek medical attention," Josovitz said.

Learning to adjust

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Facts about celiac disease What is it?

Celiac causes the body to attack the small intestine, damaging it and causing various illnesses.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of celiac are different for everyone but include abdominal pain, diarrhea, chronic fatigue, weight loss, malnutrition, tooth enamel defects, osteoporosis, anemia and--in children--irritability and failure to grow properly.

What causes it?

The cause of celiac has not been determined, but research shows it is at least partially genetic.

Who has it?

Celiac affects both children and adults. It is most common in people of European descent.

Is there a cure?

There is no cure for celiac.