Coeliac disease is characterized by weight loss, undigested greasy stools and any disorders showing deficiency such as stunted growth, poor learning ability and recurrent infections. Diagnosis of this condition is, however, only made through very specific blood tests and biopsy of part of the small intestine called the jejunum. This process requires the patient to swallow a metal capsule on the end of a wire and when the capsule is in the right part of the small intestine, as defined by X-ray, the capsule is opened, grabs part of the mucosal lining, is closed and withdrawn with the biopsy sample. It is not a particularly unpleasant test, other than you have to sit there with a wire hanging from your mouth and the discomfort of the instrument hanging down your throat. It may take several hours for the capsule to reach the jejunum but usually this occurs within one or two.

The condition is caused by a sensitivity to one of the proteins in gluten called gliadin. This protein, found predominantly in wheat but also in rye, oats, corn (maize), buckwheat, rice and millet, causes a type of inflammation in specific individuals that makes the small intestine swell and become incapable of proper absorption.

The condition is most commonly genetic, being passed down family lines. The genetic fault seems to be created by an incorrect defence or immune response affecting the lining of the bowel that comes into contact with gliadin. The need to treat this condition is paramount because there are associated problems with the thyroid, rashes and psychiatric disturbances such as schizophrenia. More disturbingly, there is a higher incidence of diabetes and cancer in untreated coeliac patients.

Coeliac disease can only be diagnosed in a specialist unit but any suspicion must be referred through your GP for investigation.

Once a diagnosis of gluten sensitivity has been established, all gluten-containing foods must be avoided. The list above gives the main foods in question but millet, corn and rice should only be avoided until the problem has settled because their level of gliadin is negligible.

Milk and milk products should be eliminated initially because the condition is often associated with milk intolerance.

Keep a very close eye on pre-prepared foods or on foods eaten out, because many foods such as sauces, ice cream, soups and alcoholic beverages contain gluten products.

Coeliac societies in your area can be found through your GP and they can help with diet programming and finding support groups.

Intravenous nutritional supplementation is of benefit in severe cases and can be utilized initially because the exclusion treatment may take several weeks to prove effective.

High-dose oral antioxidants, particularly beta-carotene, may correct nutritional deficiencies swiftly.

See Food intolerance. Any small intestinal inflammation can lead to poor digestion and the absorption into the bloodstream of large molecules, which in turn lead to an immune response. It is worth having a food allergy/intolerance test performed through blood investigation or by the use of Vega/bioresonance computers.

Herbal treatments and homeopathic remedies should be prescribed by an expert in those fields.

The compound papaine, found in papaya, specifically digests wheat gluten and up to l.OOOmg taken with meals may allow those with mild coeliac disease to tolerate small amounts of gluten.