What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease that can affect both children and adults. People with celiac cannot digest/tolerate a protein called gluten which is found in wheat, oats, rye, or barley (malt). These certain types of grains set off an immune response that causes damage to the small intestine. This interferes with the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients found in food, leading to malnutrition and a variety of other complications. More specifically, there are tiny fingerlike protrusions in the small intestine, called villi, that are used by our body to absorb nutrients. The gluten protein damages the small intestine lining, mucosa and villi. Without villi, a person becomes malnourished – – regardless of the quantity of food eaten.
Why is it called an autoimmune disease?
Because the body’s own immune system causes the damage, celiac disease is considered an autoimmune disorder. However, it is also classified as a disease of malabsorption because nutrients are not absorbed.
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
There are many symptoms of celiacs these are the more common symptoms are:
- chronic diarrhea
- stomach aches
- foul smelling stool
- weight loss
- unexplained anemia
- muscle cramps
- Failure to thrive in infants
- delayed growth
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
There are two main ways to get a diagnosis. The two methods are either by a blood test or a biopsy of the small intestine. In the blood tests, doctors test blood to measure the levels of antibodies to gluten. Recently, researchers discovered that people with celiac disease have higher than normal levels of certain antibodies in their blood. Antibodies are produced by the immune system in response to substances that the body perceives to be threatening.
The second way is by getting a biopsy. The doctors take a tiny piece of issue from the small intestinal wall to check for damage to the villi. This procedure is done with an endoscope. This method is the most accurate of the two.
What is the treatment?
The treatment is simple, but still not as easy as it sounds: eat a gluten free diet. That means avoiding all foods that contain gluten, even in the smallest amounts. For most people this will stop symptoms, prevent further damage to the small intestine, and heal the damage done. Usually the intestine will heal within a few days or weeks. For adults, it can take up to 2 years. Eating gluten free is a lifetime requirement. Even “cheating” now and then can cause damage and not to mention discomfort after eating it.
Eating gluten free is complicated, but possible. Gluten is hidden in many places that you’d never think of. Things like soups, marinades, sauces, and other non “bread” items will sometimes have gluten. Cereals that are made with corn or rice may also have wheat even in a small amount and/or barley in the form of malt. Usually, going gluten free means throwing out a lot of what is already at home and starting fresh. Thankfully, many products are now labeled gluten free. You can also find great gluten free lists like this one: Gluten Free Shopping List. There is also this wonderful gluten free resource that lists all the companies that sell gluten free food: Gluten Free Resources (pdf). Finally, there is this great Grocery Shopping Guide that you can purchase from Triumph Dining that lists everything you’ll ever need to know when you go to the store.
What are the complications of celiacs?
Damage to the small intestine and the resulting problems with nutrient absorption put a person with celiac disease at risk for several diseases and health problems. These complications may include cancer, osteoporosis, short stature from not absorbing nutrients during childhood, and seizures. For some the complications of celiacs is never feeling well and always fighting something like a cold,the flu, or in our case, ear infections.
I hope this has been helpful. I used three very thorough websites to help me put this together. Please visit these sites as they have a wealth of information: