Can undiagnosed coeliac disease hinder achievement?


The sky is the limit when you aim for success. But can undiagnosed coeliac disease pose a hindrance?

As a child I was quite a smart cookie. However, during my time at University, and even years before that, I was frequently anaemic, felt exhausted and suffered terribly from what I later knew to be brain fog. I always felt that I had to study twice as long as my peers and I could never concentrate during lectures. It was through perseverance and support from my parents that I succeded.

Fast forward over a decade, and I now remember almost everything I read just once. If I may say so myself, my memory is my new superpower. I barely sleep because I am a mum and that’s what some mums do. Yet I still concentrate, can multitask, and constantly strive for knowledge.

You might wonder what the secret to my improved mental clarity was. It is simple really. I was diagnosed with coeliac disease and stopped poisoning myself. For almost 8 years now, I have never intentionally ingested even a micro crumb of gluten.

I have often wondered how much easier it would have been if I had been diagnosed earlier. Would I have succeeded more? Or would I have even chosen this career path in the first place? I doubt it. Being a physiotherapist is a great job and I like it. But I have never loved it. It’s just that for as long as I remember, I was convinced I had a different calling. My final grades to enter University just did not match up to the difficult entry requirements for the particular course I wanted to persue at the time.

It seems like there might be some truth to my theory after all. A group of researchers sought for complications of untreated coeliac disease in  Finnish adults. The authors used a population of 2427 Finnish adults between 24–39 years of age. These subjects all completed an extensive questionnaire on their health, diet, social situation and family life, and were given a medical examination. 21 persons were identified to have silent coeliac disease by taking measurements of serum IgA-transglutaminase and IgA-endomysium antibodies.

According to the abstract this study,

The subjects with silent coeliac disease did not differ from the rest of the cohort in age, gender, stature, weight, medical diagnoses (autoimmune, malignant), health concerns, use of alternative medications, physical activity, or in the cause of death their parents. They had lower serum HDL-cholesterol (1.12 versus 1.29 mmol/L;p=0.015), as described for active coeliac disease. Fewer (5.3% versus 22.8%; p=0.047) had a university or college degree or worked in managerial or professional positions (28% versus 45%; p=0.112). 

Now that is a valid pont. If the subjects had the same results in every aspect (except serum HDL cholsterol which is to be expected), then something must have caused the huge difference in percentages between people with untreated coeliac disease and other subjects in terms of how many had a university or college degree or worked in managerial or professional positions.

That something is the lack of diagnosis.

That someting is the effect of gluten on our general health and well being.

According to the authors of the study,
it may be related to the increased prevalence of depressive and disruptive behavioural disorders described in teenagers with untreated coeliac disease. 

You might say that these people had silent coeliac disease so experienced no symptoms. However, it has been well documented that people who are diagnosed with silent coeliac disease do improve on a gluten free diet. It is just that they would have been experiencing symptoms that they accept as normality.

This is just another important reason for early detection and diagnosis of coeliac disease. To date, coeliac disease is still vastly underdiagnosed. Screening of ‘at risk’ groups are now helping to identify people with silent coeliac disease.

Verkasalo MA, Raitakari OT, Viikari J, Marniemi J, & Savilahti E. Undiagnosed silent coeliac disease: a risk for underachievement? Scand J Gastroenterol. 2005 Dec;40(12):1407-12.

4 thoughts on “Can undiagnosed coeliac disease hinder achievement?

  1. I am going through something similar at the moment and this post really hit home. I am a physio from Australia but have been living in the US and I am currently studying for the licensing exam over here. I have fructose malabsorption and as such can eat a little wheat but even that is beginning to affect me, I think. I’m on a gluten challenge at the moment, before I see my new GI next week for a new round of CD testing and, for the last 5 weeks, I feel my study has gone backwards, the fatigue and brain fog have been incredible to the point where my husband says I’m “broken.” This is very out of the ordinary for my FM symptoms, which are usually purely digestive. Wheat has always given me different symptoms, even compared to the fructan class of FODMAPs, so I’m wondering whether it has been the gluten all along. So yeah, thanks for writing this, it’s nice to know I’m not going crazy!


  2. I started showing symptoms of Coeliac Disease when I was 11 years old but only got my diagnosis at 17.

    I was intelligent but had a short attention span and often fell asleep in class. Coursework was a disaster for me because it involved long term focus and I just couldn’t concentrate very well. I managed to finish school and go to college but that’s where my symptoms got worse eventually leading to my diagnosis.

    I honestly believe that if I had been diagnosed at the start I would’ve gotten much higher grades at school and college.


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