Celiac disease is an immune reaction of the small intestine triggered by consumption of the protein gluten, which is found in products containing wheat, barley, or rye. Gluten products include bread, pasta, cookies, and pizza. The reaction damages the surface of the small intestine, inhibiting the absorption of nutrients, eventually causing vitamin deficiencies that harm the entire body.
Celiac disease cannot be cured, but it can be managed through diet.
Although there are no typical symptoms of celiac disease, and some people with the condition have no symptoms at all, most have complaints like:
- Occasional diarrhea
- Abdominal pain
- Iron-deficiency anemia (IDA)
Celiac disease symptoms can also be similar to those of irritable bowel syndrome, gastric ulcers, parasites, and anemia.
Other symptoms include:
- Irritability and depression
- Upset stomach
- Joint pain
- Muscle cramps
- Skin rash
- Mouth sores
- Tingling in the hands and feet
Symptoms of poor absorption of nutrients include:
- Weight loss
- Abdominal cramps, gas, bloating
- Foul-smelling, grayish, fatty or oily stools
- Stunted growth
- Dental and bone disorders (e.g. osteoporosis)
Causes and Prevention
A normal small intestine is lined with tiny, projections called villi, resembling the deep pile of a plush carpet, which absorb nutrients from the food you eat. Celiac disease damages the villi, crippling their ability to absorb nutrients, which are passed to the large intestine and eliminated.
The cause of celiac disease is unknown, but some gene mutations seem to increase its risk, and it often runs in families. It also tends to be more common in people with:
- Type 1 diabetes
- Autoimmune thyroid disease
- Down syndrome
- Microscopic colitis
Since celiac disease has no cure, treatment entails avoiding all foods that contain gluten. Your WellStar physician will refer you to a dietitian who will help you develop a healthy gluten-free diet.
Once gluten has been removed from your diet, the intestinal inflammation will begin to subside. You may feel better in a few days. Regrowth of the villi may take several months to a few years. It usually occurs more quickly in children than in adults.
It is important to avoid gluten entirely; even trace amounts of gluten can be damaging, whether they produce symptoms or not.
In cases of severe nutritional deficiency, your WellStar physician or dietitian may recommend vitamin and mineral supplements, usually in pill form, but sometimes by injection. A severely inflamed small intestine may be treated with steroids.