Celiac disease is more than sensitivity to gluten. It’s a serious disorder that damages the small intestines and can block your body from absorbing nutrients.
Wheat, barley, rye, and triticale (a cross between wheat and rye) are used in countless food products, from breads and pastas to desserts and snacks. Because these grains contain many nutrients, as well as fiber, they are healthy choices for many people to include in their diets. But for those with celiac disease, eating anything containing these grains can be harmful.
That’s because wheat, barley, rye, and triticale contain gluten, a protein that can cause serious health problems in people with celiac disease.
When the topic “What is celiac disease?” comes up, the condition (sometimes called celiac sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy) can be confused with gluten intolerance. But it’s important to understand they are not the same.
Gluten intolerance causes short-term bloating and stomachache if gluten is consumed, but no long-term physical harm. Celiac disease, on the other hand, is marked by an autoimmune reaction in the small intestine when a person eats gluten — and that can cause not only a host of painful digestive symptoms but also damage to the small intestines and other parts of the body.
What causes celiac disease?
Studies have shown there’s a hereditary factor involved in whether a person develops celiac disease; it occurs only in people who have specific genes, the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK) points out.
But these genetic factors are common, affecting about one third of the population, and most carriers of the gene don’t have celiac disease. So, researchers don’t know yet what exactly triggers celiac disease in people with the hereditary factor.
It is clear the disease sometimes runs in families. In fact, about 10 to 20 percent of close relatives of people with celiac disease also have the condition. And it appears that people at risk who do eat gluten regularly over a period of time are those most likely to develop it. Other, still not understood environmental factors may also play a role, the NIDDK explains.
In addition, it appears certain stresses — like pregnancy, childbirth, surgery, a virus infection, bacterial gastroenteritis (bacteria-caused inflammation of the stomach and intestines), and severe mental and emotional stress — may trigger the first signs of celiac disease in susceptible people, too.
Symptoms of celiac disease can vary
Although some people with the condition may not have symptoms or feel sick, most people with celiac disease do have one or more symptoms, often related to the digestive tract (especially in children). These celiac disease symptoms include abdominal bloating, chronic diarrhea, gas, nausea, constipation, pale or fatty stools that float, stomach pain, and vomiting.
Because youngsters with untreated celiac disease are often unable to absorb nutrients, normal growth and development in children can be disrupted causing:
- Failure to thrive in infants
- Delayed puberty
- Damage to permanent teeth enamel
- Emotional problems such as unexplained mood changes
- Weight Loss
- Slowed growth and shorter than normal height
Celiac disease digestive symptoms in adults tend to most often include abdominal pain and bloating (sometimes caused by intestinal blockages) and sores on the stomach or lining of the small intestine.
In addition, adults with the disease are more likely to experience:
- Extreme and long-lasting fatigue
- Anemia due to malabsorption of nutrients
- An unusually red, shiny tongue
- Bone or joint pain
- Long-lasting depression or anxiety
- Ulcers or sores on the stomach or lining of the small intestine
- Canker sores or dry mouth
- Tingling and numbness in the hand and feet
- Weak and brittle bones; osteoporosis
Potentially serious complications of celiac disease
When people with celiac disease continue to eat gluten, even if they don’t immediately have worrisome symptoms, they may eventually develop complications due to the disease, according to the NIDDK.
For example, women may experience missed menstrual periods, infertility, and repeated miscarriages. And celiac disease can produce autoimmune reactions that spread beyond the digestive tract to other areas of your body, including your bones, joints, spleen, and nervous system.
Dermatitis herpetiformis is another autoimmune manifestation of celiac disease. This itchy, blistering skin rash affects about one in 10 people with celiac disease at some point. Some may have this rash but experience no other symptoms of celiac disease, the NIDDK explains.
Dermatitis herpetiformis typically appears on knees, elbows, buttocks, the back, or scalp. While it can affect people at any age, it primarily develops for the first time when people with celiac disease are between the ages of 30 and 40. Men are more likely to develop the rash in their mouths and, rarely, in the genital area.
More reasons to take celiac disease seriously: Having the condition doubles the average risk of developing coronary artery disease. It’s also associated with a significantly higher chance of developing small bowel cancers, according to the Celiac Disease Foundation.
Diagnosing and treating celiac disease
Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon for symptoms of celiac disease to be dismissed, ignored, or blamed on “just stomachaches” or other minor health problems for years. And that can put you or your child at risk for more serious problems.
In fact, the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center notes 97 percent of people with celiac disease have likely not been diagnosed yet.
That’s why it’s important to talk to your doctor about being tested for celiac disease if you or your child (age 3 or older) is experiencing any symptoms of the condition. If you have first-degree relatives (parents, brothers, sisters, or children) diagnosed with the disease, you should be tested regardless of symptoms.
In addition, being diagnosed with another autoimmune disease greatly increases the odds you may also have celiac disease, so you should be tested. For example, the University of Chicago Celiac Disease Center notes six percent of people with type 1 diabetes have celiac disease.
Diagnosing celiac disease involves a simple blood test, conducted while you are on a gluten-containing diet. If you have celiac disease, you’ll have higher than normal levels of certain antibodies in your blood.
There's no cure for celiac disease. Treatment is simply avoiding all gluten. The good news is following a strict gluten-free diet manages symptoms and promotes intestinal healing for most people. But for success, it’s critical to check all products before eating them to make sure they contain no gluten.
It may seem daunting to cook and eat gluten-free, but there are numerous resources online and in books that offer gluten-free recipes and meal plans. And many foodstuffs normally made from gluten containing grains, like pasta and bread, can now be found in gluten-free forms.
February 03, 2021
Janet O’Dell, RN