What is Celiac Disease?
Gluten is a protein found in cereal grains like wheat, barley, and rye. It’s also in flour, pastries, breads, pastas, and many other foods. People with celiac disease have an immune response when they eat food that contains gluten. This response damages the inside of the small intestine, so the body has more difficulty absorbing nutrients from food. Even very small amounts of gluten can cause intestinal damage in people who suffer from celiac disease.
What causes Celiac Disease?
99% of people with celiac disease have particular genes, which is why genetic testing is sometimes used to help identify the disease. You are more likely to have these genes if you have a near relative who has celiac disease. Having these genes doesn’t guarantee that you’ll get the disease, although your risk is increased. The exact cause of celiac disease isn’t currently known, but the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center speculates that reduced exposure to bacterial antigens in babies can cause the immune system to overreact to antigens later in life, leading to a higher risk of allergic and autoimmune conditions.
Who is at risk for Celiac Disease?
Most people with celiac disease have particular genetic markers, which can be passed down. You are more at risk for celiac disease if you have a sibling, parent, or child with celiac disease. Approximately 1 in 133 people have celiac disease, and it tends to be more common in people who have Type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome, Turner syndrome, autoimmune thyroid disease, Sjogren’s syndrome, or microscopic colitis. Women are diagnosed with celiac disease two to three times more often than men.
Signs and Symptoms
Many of the symptoms of celiac disease are caused by the failure of the small intestine to properly absorb nutrients. There may be some mild stomach pain, but this isn’t a primary symptoms. Only about one-third of celiac disease sufferers experience diarrhea, and about half have weight loss. 20% of people with celiac disease experience constipation, and 10% are obese, although as many as 75% of children with celiac disease are obese or overweight.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease:
- Numbness in the hands and feet
- Dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy skin rash with blisters)
- Joint pain
- Bloating, gas, and abdominal swelling
- Abnormal stools – diarrhea, pale, frothy, or foul-smelling bowel movements
- Weight loss
When people with celiac disease ingest gluten, the immune system responds by producing antibodies. These antibodies can be detected with a blood antibody test. Make sure that you continue to eat a regular diet before going in for a blood antibody test; if you eliminate gluten from your diet, your body will not produce the antibodies, so they will not show up.
If these antibodies are found, your doctor may perform an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy, wherein an endoscope (a thin, flexible tube) is inserted through your mouth into the upper gastrointestinal tract. The doctor may take a biopsy, and study the cells of your small intestine to see if there are abnormal villi, inflammation, or other kinds of damage. If you eliminate gluten from your diet, the antibody test may be performed again. If it comes back normal, the diagnosis of celiac disease is confirmed.
There is no cure for celiac disease. Sufferers must alter their diets to avoid gluten altogether. Luckily, due to an increasing awareness of the disease, this has become much easier. Many restaurants offer gluten-free options, and several foods that used to be off-limits now come in gluten-free varieties. Carefully check the packaging of any food you buy to make sure that it has been prepared in a gluten-free environment. Oats, for example, do not contain gluten, but should be avoided because they are often processed alongside gluten products. Even small amounts of gluten can be very harmful to the small intestine, so patients with celiac disease must constantly be aware of the foods and beverages they are ingesting.
Foods to avoid if you have celiac disease:
- Pasta, rice, and noodles
- Pastries and baked goods
- Cereal and granola
- Croutons and breadcrumbs