Learning to live with celiac disease:
Celiac disease is a digestive disease where the body's immune response to gluten, a protein in various grains, causes a variety of digestive and nondigestive illnesses. Celiac disease is especially common in people with type 1 diabetes. It is estimated that about 10% of those with type 1 also have celiac disease.
What causes celiac disease?
Celiac disease is considered an autoimmune disorder, which means that the body mistakenly attacks itself. So, when people who have celiac disease eat foods that contain gluten, their immune system responds by attacking the parts of the small intestine whose job it is to absorb nutrients from food. Over time, the person with celiac disease becomes malnourished if they continue to eat gluten-laden foods, regardless of how much they eat.
Where is gluten found?
Gluten is found in wheat, rye, and barley. Unfortunately, avoiding gluten is far more difficult than most people realize. In addition to the grains themselves, many processed foods found in the grocery stores contain gluten, as do many other consumable products, such as vitamins and medicines. In addition, some foods that are typically free of gluten can become contaminated with gluten at food processing plants because the same equipment is used for both.
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
The symptoms vary from person to person, based on age and the amount of damage that has been done to the small intestine. Many adults have lived with the symptoms of celiac disease for years before being accurately diagnosed. The longer a person goes undiagnosed and treated, the higher the risk for permanent damage to the intestine.
Young children with celiac disease are more likely to have symptoms that affect the digestive tract, while adults with celiac disease can have symptoms that affect many different parts of the body, which contributes to a delayed diagnosis in many cases.
Symptoms common in children with celiac include:
- abdominal pain and bloating
- chronic diarrhea
- weight loss
Symptoms common in adults with celiac include:
- bone or joint pain
- depression or anxiety
- missed menstrual periods in women
- tingling or numbness in hands or feet
Potential long-term complications associated with celiac disease include malnutrition, anemia, liver disease and certain cancers.
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
Celiac disease is often misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, inflammatory bowel disease, or diverticulitis, among others. The most direct way to diagnose celiac disease is by having a blood test to assess whether the person has higher than normal levels of certain autoantibodies, which are proteins that react against the body’s own cells or tissues.
If blood tests indicate a high level of autoantibodies, the next step in diagnosis is to perform a biopsy of the small intestine to assess whether there is damage to the parts that absorb nutrients. The biopsy should be able to confirm the diagnosis.
How is celiac disease treated?
There is no cure for celiac disease, but there is an effective treatment that can, in most cases, eliminate the symptoms. Eating a gluten-free diet is the best way to stop symptoms and help heal intestinal damage. Improvement in symptoms usually begins within days of dietary changes, but healing of the small intestine may take anywhere from a few months to a few years, depending on the severity of damage.
What are acceptable alternatives to gluten-laden food?
There are many foods that do not contain gluten, such as:
People with gluten intolerance will need to eat a gluten-free diet the rest of their lives in order to stay symptom-free. Learning to read food labels and asking questions about gluten when dining out must become a way of life.
American Diabetes Association. "Gluten-free diets.”
National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse."Celiac Disease."