Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder that is triggered by eating gluten. Gluten is a protein in wheat, barley, rye, and other grains.
When people with celiac disease eat gluten, their bodies overreact to the protein and damage occurs to their villi, small finger-like projections found along the wall of their small intestine.
Celiac disease is not the same as gluten intolerance or a food allergy. Although people with gluten sensitivity may have some of the symptoms, their bodies do not necessarily show an immune response or damage to the small intestine.
If left untreated, celiac disease can be dangerous, resulting in a variety of complications such as:
- Cancer, including intestinal lymphoma and small bowel cancer
- Damaged tooth enamel
- Infertility and miscarriage
- Lactose intolerance
- Nervous system problems like seizures or pain and numbness in your hands and feet (peripheral neuropathy)
- Pancreatic disease
- Weak bones
People with celiac disease who eat foods with gluten may experience these symptoms:
- Abdominal pain
- Bloating or a feeling of fullness
- Bone or joint pain
- Itchy, blistery rash
- Headaches or fatigue
- Mouth ulcers
- Nervous system injury, including numb or tingling hands or feet, balance problems, or changes in awareness
- Stool that is pale, smells especially bad, or floats
- Weight loss
If one of your close family members (parent, sibling, or child) has celiac disease, you have a 1 in 10 chance of getting it. It is more common in Caucasian people who have other underlying conditions such as type 1 diabetes, autoimmune liver disease, thyroid disease, Down’s syndrome, Turner syndrome, or Williams syndrome.
To accurately test for the disease, you need to have some gluten in your system. Your physician may perform one or more of the following tests:
- Blood test – to check for certain antibodies in your system; people with celiac disease have higher-than-normal rates of antibodies.
- HLA genetic test (blood, saliva, or cheek swab) – to see if you have HLA-DQ2 and HLA-DQ8 genes; people without these genes likely do not have the disease.
- Endoscopy – a tiny camera scope that allows your doctor to view your intestinal tract and look for damaged villi and possibly take a biopsy sample for further analysis.
To date there is no medication to treat celiac disease; however, there are some lifestyle modifications you can make to help alleviate the problem.
Adopting a gluten-free diet is the primary way to manage symptoms. This means avoiding foods that are made with or contain gluten, including:
- Wheat or wheat flour
- Graham flour
The following resources may be helpful: