Gluten allergy — Celiac disease or something else?

Originally Published: December 23, 1994 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: April 4, 2014
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Dear Alice,

We have a case in our family where our sister has bone fractures at age 30 due to low bone density. At age 34 she was diagnosed as having a gluten allergy. It seems like that was the root cause of poor calcium absorption, which led to the bone fractures. It is difficult to get a hold of good information on food allergies. Can you provide any that is at your disposal? Thanks.

—Sis living without wheat

Dear Sis living without wheat,

First off, kudos to you for seeking out more information on your sister’s behalf. She is lucky to have someone like you looking out for her! To shed some light on your food allergy inquiry, a “gluten allergy” is often used as an umbrella term for four different gluten-related conditions: celiac disease, non-celiac gluten sensitivity, dermatitis herpetiformis, or gluten ataxia. While the treatment for all four conditions is generally the same — avoiding gluten — each has different symptoms and different levels of severity. The most serious of these conditions is celiac disease. If a person has celiac disease, eating gluten can lead to inflammation and damage in the small intestine. Such damage makes it difficult for the body to absorb nutrients and can lead to severe malnutrition, diarrhea, and weight loss.

Based on the low bone density you have described, it seems that celiac disease may very likely be the cause of your sister’s condition. There are a few medical tests that can determine if a person has celiac disease. If your sister were to test positive, it would be a good idea for you and your family to get tested, as there is a genetic component to the disease. There is no cure for celiac disease, so early diagnosis is key!

It might also be a good idea for your sister to speak with a registered dietitian to discuss her new diet and where to find gluten-free foods. If your sister is a Columbia student, she can make an appointment at Medical Services (Morningside) or the Student Health Service (CUMC)

In the meantime, there is an abundance of reliable information available online. You and your sister might want to check out these resources:

Your sister may have a lot on her plate right now, so to speak, as she adjusts to a new diet. You can be supportive by learning about gluten-free eating and cooking, encouraging her to discuss questions with a health care provider or dietitian, and helping family and friends understand her dietary needs. Many people who have gone gluten-free find they enjoy cooking and eating more, knowing that the food they eat is not harming their bodies. Your sister might find that cutting out gluten will actually expand her cooking and eating repertoire!

Wishing you and your sister many enjoyable meals in the future!

Alice