Celiac disease: a hidden cause of osteoporosis

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder characterized by intolerance to gluten.

by Marianne Crafts-Brandner — 

One night, at the age of 62, Doreen rolled over in bed and fractured a vertebra in her spine. Unable to move, she had to be rescued by an emergency medical team. She spent three weeks flat on her back in a hospital bed. Initial tests showed that she had severe osteoporosis. When osteoporosis occurs in younger individuals, it is a red flag for celiac disease. After further testing, Doreen’s doctors diagnosed celiac disease as the cause of her osteoporosis.

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder characterized by intolerance to gluten. Doreen was a victim of what is called “silent celiac disease.” The classic celiac symptoms most doctors look for are gastrointestinal discomforts, such as cramps, bloating and diarrhea. In silent celiac disease, however, the typical symptoms are either absent or so mild that they are simply dismissed as indigestion. Often there have been digestive difficulties in childhood that gradually subsided, but celiac disease never really goes away. With or without symptoms, it can remain silent for decades.

Meanwhile, gluten continues to damage the intestinal lining, hindering the absorption of vital nutrients. A stressful event may precipitate more severe symptoms, prompting doctors to recognize the celiac condition or, as in Doreen’s case, the core problem is finally revealed following the diagnosis of a related condition. Very often this related condition is osteoporosis, anemia or an autoimmune condition, such as thyroid disease or rheumatoid arthritis. Because of its ambiguous nature, silent celiac disease is often misdiagnosed or missed entirely.

In her early 60s when her osteoporosis was diagnosed, for years Doreen had not been absorbing enough calcium, vitamin D and other vital bone-building nutrients. In this case, however, she could have been alerted to her condition two decades earlier. Doreen’s sister had been diagnosed 20 years earlier with celiac disease but, because she was ashamed of her gastrointestinal ailments, she chose to hide the condition from her family.

Today there is more acceptance and greater awareness about celiac disease, including its tendency to run in families. With osteoporosis rates continuing to escalate, there is an urgent need for more education about this hidden cause.

According to Dr. Peter H.R. Green, author of Celiac Disease: A Hidden Epidemic, 97 percent of celiacs have not been diagnosed. He believes the condition affects one out of every 100 people. Perhaps as more doctors recognize the extent of the problem, fewer celiacs will have to suffer irreversible effects from conditions such as osteoporosis.


Marianne Crafts-Brandner is a certified nutritionist. She offers individualized nutritional counseling, specializing in special diets. or 602-615-8065.

Reprinted from AzNetNews, Volume 25, Number 4, August/September 2006.

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