Did you know that celiac disease affects 1 in 100 people worldwide? Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that affects your small intestine when you eat food containing gluten.
What is gluten and why do people with celiac disease have to avoid gluten?
Gluten is a type of protein found in grains such as wheat, barley, triticale, and rye. Gluten acts a glue or binder, helping foods hold their shape. Gluten can often be found in items such as baked goods, bread, pasta, cereal, malt, sauces, soups, medications, and yeast, to name a few.
When someone who has celiac disease eats food containing gluten, their body has an immune response that attacks the small intestine. Your small intestine plays a part in absorbing essential nutrients from the foods you eat. Over time, this immune response leads to damage of the small intestine’s lining, can prevent your body from absorbing essential nutrients from the foods you eat, and can also cause harm to the skin, bones, or nervous system.
What are the signs and symptoms of celiac disease?
Signs and symptoms can vary widely among people based on the amount of inflammation in their bodies. Some people have milder symptoms while others have more severe symptoms which can lead them to seek treatment.
Common symptoms of celiac disease include:
- Abdominal pain
- Weight loss
- Poor growth or poor weight gain in children
- Pale, foul-smelling stools
- Muscle cramps
What are the risk factors for developing celiac disease?
Although the exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, it can be hereditary, meaning 1 in 10 people with a first-degree relative who has been diagnosed with celiac disease will also develop celiac disease.
Celiac disease can be associated with other conditions such as thyroid disease, type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, down syndrome, and lupus but the link remains unknown.
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
If you think you may have celiac disease, you should contact your healthcare provider. Your healthcare provider will perform an evaluation and may refer you to a gastroenterologist. While waiting for an evaluation, it is important that you do not change your diet, specifically taking care not to eliminate gluten from your diet.
Your healthcare provider may first order blood tests. Based on the results of the blood tests, your healthcare provider may want to perform an endoscopy to get biopsies from your small intestine.
What is the treatment for celiac disease?
Currently, the only treatment option for celiac disease is 100% avoidance of gluten. Since even traces of gluten can cause an inflammatory response, it is important to be careful with common items such as cutting boards, cookware, and toasters where cross-contamination with gluten-containing foods may occur. Oats do not contain gluten and serve as a good alternative, but they should be certified gluten-free due to the high likelihood of cross-contamination to wheat or other gluten-containing grains. Speaking to a dietician can help you identify hidden sources of gluten in food products.
Celiac Disease Foundation, “What is Celiac Disease?”
Celiac Disease Foundation, “What is Gluten?”
Mayo Clinic, “Celiac disease,” August 10, 2021.
Cleveland Clinic, “Celiac Disease,” January 10, 2020.
Johns Hopkins, “Celiac Disease.”