Natural Health

What is Celiac Disease?

By: Vickie Richter
Published: Sunday, 16 March 2008

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Celiac disease is an inherited autoimmune disorder that affects the digestive process of the small intestine.

When a person who has celiac disease consumes gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley, the individual’s immune system responds by attacking the small intestine and damaging its villi. Villi are tiny fingerlike protrusions that absorb nutrients from food and release them into the blood stream. When the body is being deprived of nutrients, any one or more of the many symptoms of celiac disease can ravage the body.

Celiac disease often goes undiagnosed because there are as many as 300 different symptoms, many of them subtle and seemingly unrelated. In fact, it is sometimes confused with irritable bowel syndrome, iron-deficiency anemia, Cohn’s disease, diverticulitis, intestinal infections, and chronic fatigue syndrome. Some people have no symptoms at all, but they are at the same risk for the complications associated with the disease.

Symptoms may or may not occur in the digestive system. For example, one person might have diarrhea and abdominal pain, while another person has infertility or anemia. Some of the more prominent symptoms of celiac disease may include one or more of the following:

• Recurring abdominal bloating and pain
• Chronic diarrhea/constipation
• Vomiting
• Liver disorders
• Weight loss
• Pale, foul-smelling stool
• Iron-deficiency anemia that does not respond to iron therapy
• Fatigue
• Failure to thrive or short stature
• Delayed puberty
• Pain in the joints
• Tingling or numbness in the legs
• Pale sores inside the mouth
• A skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis (DH)
• Tooth discoloration or loss of enamel
• Unexplained infertility, recurrent miscarriage
• Osteopenia (mild) or osteoporosis (more serious bone density problem)
• Anxiety and depression

Screening for celiac disease involves testing for the presence of certain antibodies in the blood: since celiac disease is hereditary, family members, of people who have been diagnosed, may wish to be tested for the disease. If the tests and symptoms suggest celiac disease, your healthcare provider would recommend a small bowel biopsy to check for damage to the villi.

Celiac disease was once thought to be a rare condition, but has been found to affect more than 1% of the American population, or about 3 million people. It is possible to be diagnosed with celiac disease at any age, even in infancy.

The good news about celiac disease is that if it’s caught early enough and treatment (a gluten free diet) is strictly followed, the body can return to full health!

Adhering to a gluten free diet, while challenging, is becoming easier to do as more and more gluten free products come to market. As the awareness of celiac disease continues to rises, the treatment for it also becomes more “socially acceptable.”