Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease triggered by the consumption of gluten. A Celiac patient’s reaction to gluten is much like anyone’s reaction to an allergen; the immune system immediately sends antibodies to ward off what they see as a potential threat. The antibodies target the intestinal lining, damaging the digestive system’s ability to absorb nutrients. Because of this, malnourishment is often a symptom of Celiac disease.
Celiac Disease’s Effect on Iron
Because of the difficulty that the body faces to absorb minerals and vitamins properly, celiac disease and iron deficiency are linked in many cases. In fact, abnormally low bone density and anemia are often seen as warning signs of Celiac disease. After being found anemic by a blood test, doctors proceed to perform more tests in an attempt to find the source of the anemia. This is when the patient’s celiac disease is discovered. It is much the same with osteopenia– after being diagnosed as having low bone density, doctors discover their patient’s celiac disease. There are two main causes of iron deficiency in celiac patients.
The first cause is the inability to absorb sufficient nutrients. When the antibodies that the immune system produces attack the intestinal lining, the villi are also damaged. Villi are small, thin structures erected by the body in order to increase the surface area of the intestines, and thus the absorption of many vitamins and minerals vital to proper health. Iron is one such mineral, though not the only one; as Celiac disease can lead to iron deficiency, it can also lead to many other deficiencies in different areas. Other common symptoms include headaches, fatigue, and overall malnutrition.
The other major cause is the nutritional difficulties that a gluten-free diet presents. The FDA has set certain requirements for flour pertaining to the amounts of various vitamins and minerals that it must contain per pound– that is why most flours are labeled “enriched”. In America, flour must have 20 milligrams of iron per pound. However, the gluten-free flours that celiac patients can eat have no such requirements. Not only are celiac patients unable to absorb as much iron as those without celiac disease, but chances are also that they aren’t even receiving as much iron in their diet to begin with! Because gluten is found in almost all conventional flours, (barley, wheat, oats, rye, and many more) they are made off limits by the strict gluten-free diet that Celiac patients must follow. As you can see, iron consumption and gluten-free diets don’t go together too well.
Iron deficiency is a problem for many with celiac disease. Because their bones are still developing, it is especially important for children with celiac disease to get enough iron. Though safely incorporating iron into a celiac-friendly diet can be challenging, there are certain measures that can be taken. One such effort is changing the diet to incorporate gluten-free but iron-rich foods such as spinach; however, because of the difficulty in actual absorption of iron, this may not help much. A more plausible solution is to begin gluten-free iron supplements– because many brands are designed for celiac patients, they are made to be easily absorbable. Always consult a doctor before beginning any supplements; it is possible to receive too much iron, which can make matters even worse!