Celiac Disease

Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is caused by a
sensitivity or allergy to gluten. This is a protein found in many grains such as wheat,
barley, and rye. Celiac disease affects villi (tiny, fingerlike stalks) in the small bowel
(intestine). Normally, the villi make it possible for the small bowel to absorb nutrients
from the food you eat. But celiac disease damages the villi. As a result, you can’t absorb
the nutrients you need, even if you eat plenty of food. Celiac disease is an autoimmune
disease. You can manage the disease by removing gluten from your diet. This relieves your
symptoms. It also reverses the damage to your small bowel. Celiac disease is sometimes
called celiac sprue.

Causes of celiac disease

Celiac disease may have a genetic component. This means it can be passed down in families. If your healthcare provider thinks that you have celiac disease, he or she may advise that other members of your family be checked for it as well.

Symptoms of
celiac disease

The symptoms of celiac disease can vary for each person. Some people have no symptoms at all. If symptoms do happen, they can include:

  • Diarrhea, constipation, or both

  • Light colored, foul-smelling or fatty stool

  • Belly pain and cramping

  • Belly swelling or bloating

  • Weight loss

  • Bone or joint pain

  • Iron deficiency

  • Headaches

  • Tiredness and loss of energy

  • Mood changes, irritability, and depression

  • Infertility

  • Unexplained elevated liver tests

  • Canker sores

  • Skin rash

  • Tooth enamel problems

Diagnosing celiac disease

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and health history. You’ll also have a physical exam. Tests are then done to confirm the problem. These can include:

  • Blood tests. These help check for specific
    proteins in the blood that are present with celiac disease. They also check for
    anemia and help rule out other problems. The tests are done by taking a blood
    sample.

  • Upper endoscopy with biopsy. This is done to
    see inside the stomach and duodenum (first part of the small bowel). For the test,
    an endoscope is used. This is a thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end.
    It’s inserted through the mouth and down into the stomach and duodenum. Tools are
    passed through the endoscope to remove tiny tissue samples (biopsy). The tissue
    samples are taken to a lab and looked at under a microscope. This is to check the
    tiny villi for damage. This test must be done while you are still eating food with
    gluten. This is the only way to see whether the presence of gluten is damaging the
    villi.

  • Genetic tests. These check for problems with
    specific genes linked to celiac disease. They are done by taking blood
    samples.

Treating celiac disease

To
treat celiac disease, you must remove all sources of gluten from your diet. This will
allow the villi to heal, so that nutrients can be absorbed normally. It’s important to
follow a strict, gluten-free diet daily, even if you don’t have symptoms. If you don’t
do this, the small bowel can become permanently damaged, which can lead to serious
health problems. These include bone disease, cancer of the small bowel, and various
nervous system disorders. You may need to take certain vitamins if your levels are low.
Your doctor may want to recheck your intestine with an upper endoscopy or repeat the
celiac blood tests to make sure the tissue has healed.

Sources of gluten

Gluten is found in wheat, barley, and rye. The most common foods with gluten are those
made with wheat flour. These include bread, pasta, cake, and cereal. Gluten is also
often found in beer, gravies, salad dressings, and most packaged foods. It’s even found
in some nonfood products, such as certain medicines and cosmetics. Your healthcare
provider can refer you to a dietitian to counsel you about what you should avoid. The
resources below will also give you lists of food and products that contain gluten.

Follow-up

You’ll meet with your healthcare provider periodically to monitor your health. During these visits, routine blood tests are often done to make sure your condition is under control. Your healthcare provider can also refer you to other healthcare providers or support and advocacy groups to help you cope with your condition.

Learning more about celiac disease

The
following resources can help you learn more about celiac disease and how to manage
it:

  • Celiac Disease Foundation, www.celiac.org

  • National Celiac Association
    , www.csaceliacs.org

  • Gluten Intolerance Group, www.gluten.org

  • National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, www.niddk.nih.gov/