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What Is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is a genetically inherited autoimmune condition which causes the lining of the small intestine to be damaged by eating proteins contained in wheat, barely, rye, and oats. Celiac disease is also known as: sprue, nontropical sprue, gluten intolerance, or gluten-sensitive enteropathy.

Gastrointestinal doctors and other medical researchers are uncertain as to the exact cause of celiac disease but suspect an immune system "malfunction" is to blame. The intestinal lining of person is covered with villi, hairlike projections that assist in digestion and absorption. When a person has undiagnosed celiac disease, the villi of the small intestine become flattened as the body struggles to digest gluten, vital nutrients from food are not absorbed, and a host of problems can ensue.

Untreated celiac disease adversely impacts health as well as causes various symptoms and secondary disorders. Symptoms range by individual but may include: abdominal pain, abdominal distention, abdominal bloating, indigestion, gas or flatulence, changes of appetite (decrease or increased), occasional or chronic diarrhea, occasional or chronic constipation, lactose intolerance (which sometimes resolves following treatment), nausea, vomiting, bloody stools, unexplained weight loss or weight changes, unexplained anemia, bone and joint pain, fatigue, depression, dental enamel defects and discoloration, breathlessness, unexplained or easy bruising, delayed growth in children, hair loss, hypoglycemia (low blood sugar), malnutrition, mouth ulcers, muscle cramps, nosebleeds, seizures, unexplained short stature, irritability and behavioral changes, skin disorders, general or abdominal swelling or puffiness, and vitamin deficiency of specific or many nutrients (iron, folate, vitamin K).

Left untreated, celiac disease can cause: anemia, autoimmune disorders like rheumatoid arthritis and systemic lupus erthyematosus, intestinal cancers, dermatitis herpetiformis, lactose intolerance, miscarriage, unexplained infertility, neurological conditions, thyroid disease, Type 1 diabetes, and osteoporosis or osteopenia.

Celiac disease is most common in people of Caucasian race and European descent, and more commonly affects women than men. People with relatives diagnosed with celiac disease are more likely to develop it. Researchers at the University of Chicago's Celiac Disease Center estimate that at least 3 million Americans have celiac disease, but 97 percent are undiagnosed.
Diagnosis of celiac disease often includes blood tests followed by an upper endoscopy. A physician will do a complete blood count to determine the presence of anemia, alkaline phosphatase levels, cholesterol levels, sedimentary levels, albumin levels, liver enzymes, blood clotting factors, and antibody levels. Genetic testing is also available to determine risk factors for celiac disease. After celiac disease is diagnosed, a secondary upper endoscopy is often performed to determine effectiveness of treatment and progress of intestinal healing.

Treatment for celiac disease requires those living with celiac disease to eat a well balanced, gluten free diet. Gluten must be eliminated from everything a person consumes, including food, beverages, and medications. Physicians may refer patients with celiac disease to a nutritionist for initial gluten free, dietary counseling.

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