What is Celiac Disease and What Causes It?
Gluten is a protein that is found in most grain products, and those with Celiac disease have higher than normal levels of antibodies, or infection-fighting cells, that attack gluten. When someone with Celiac disease ingests gluten – a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley – their body views the gluten as a foreign invader. The body then attacks the small intestine, limiting the number of nutrients a person absorbs from their food. Celiac disease is genetic, and as many as 1 in 133 Americans may have the condition. Understanding of the celiac disease symptoms is essential for the proper diagnosis of the condition.
Gluten Sensitivity vs. Celiac Disease
It is easy to mistake a sensitivity to gluten for Celiac disease because both present with similar symptoms like bloating, stomach pain and diarrhea. Celiac disease is classified as an autoimmune disorder and has wide-ranging impact on the body. Gluten sensitivity is merely an intolerance to gluten that’s consumed, and does not generally impact full-body systems like Celiac can. Both issues are treated by removing gluten from the diet, however, those with Celiac disease should remove gluten completely while those with a gluten sensitivity may see improvement from simply reducing the amount of gluten and carbohydrates consumed.
Celiac disease is often a diagnosis of elimination; only blood work or a biopsy performed by your doctor can determine if you have Celiac disease. Celiac disease shares symptoms with many other chronic digestive issues, including Crohn’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome, colitis, and diverticulitis.
Celiac Disease Symptoms in Adults
Some common symptoms of Celiac disease in adults include:
- Unexplained weight loss
- Persistent flatulence
- Chronic diarrhea or constipation
- Stomach and muscle cramps
- Joint pain
- Missed periods
- Numbness and tingling in the legs
- Painful, itchy skin rash
- Weak bones
- Tooth enamel loss
Some people who have Celiac disease may have no symptoms at all.
Celiac Symptoms in Children
Infants and young children are likely to experience digestive problems like abdominal bloating and pain, gas, and/or foul-smelling stools. Additional symptoms can include the following:
- Chronic diarrhea, which can be bloody
- Neurological symptoms including learning disabilities, ADHD, headaches, lack of muscle coordination, and seizures
- Tooth enamel damage
- Growth problems that include not growing as expected or short stature
- Weight loss
Some people are at a higher risk of Celiac disease and gluten sensitivity, including:
- People with European ancestors
- People with type 1 diabetes
- People with Down Syndrome
- People with autoimmune disorders
- People who are infertile
- People who are pregnant
- People with irritable bowel syndrome
Your doctor will likely suggest removing gluten entirely from your diet. You may find this to be rather difficult, as gluten is present in many foods in the Western diet. Ceasing the intake of gluten is the only treatment for Celiac disease. Once you stop eating foods containing gluten, you may notice your symptoms clear up in as little as three days. The earlier Celiac disease is caught and treated (by removing all sources of gluten from the diet), the less time healing takes. Generally in children, full healing is seen within six months. Adults may require one to two years to see full healing, and those with advanced symptoms may take even longer or may never fully recover.
Eliminating gluten can be tricky because gluten can be listed on nutrition labels under many names, and can be present in foods you wouldn’t immediately suspect. Many people who are trying a gluten free diet are simply advised to avoid wheat, barley, and rye, but are unaware that many processed foods are made with gluten-containing ingredients. Pay special attention to nutrition labels and look out for “hidden gluten” that may be listed as: caramel color, spelt, wheat starch, wheat bran, hydrolyzed wheat protein, dextrin, or mono- and di-glycerides.
Gluten often “hides” in many of the below foods:
- Beer, ale, and lagers
- Bouillon cubes
- Brown rice syrup
- Chips, potato chips
- Cold cuts, hot dogs, salami, and sausage
- Corn flakes and crisp rice cereal
- Communion wafers
- French fries
- Imitation fish
- Rice mixes
- Sauces and salad dressings
- Seasoned tortilla chips
- Self-basting turkey
- Soy sauce
- Taco seasoning packets
- Vegetables in sauce
When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system attacks the lining of their small intestine, causing damage that prevents the absorption of nutrients. This can lead to what doctors call the dangers of celiac disease, including skin rashes, lactose intolerance, infertility, bone weakness, nerve damage, and even death.
Get Help From Baptist Health
Celiac disease can feel debilitating if left untreated, but help is available. Learn more about the digestive services and treatments available at Baptist Health, or speak with your healthcare provider about your symptoms. If you don’t have a healthcare provider, you can find a Baptist Health provider near you via our online provider directory.