What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease (CD) (also known as gluten-sensitivity enteropathy) is an autoimmune disorder caused by sensitivity to dietary gluten in a genetically predisposed individual. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. Many common foods such as cereal, bread and pasta have gluten in them.
How does celiac disease affect the body?
The immune reaction to gluten damages the small intestine over time. The small intestine is where most nutrients are absorbed into the body. Eventually the body becomes malnourished because the body can no longer absorb enough nutrients from food. Celiac disease may also affect other organ systems.
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
The symptoms of celiac disease can vary from person to person. The disease affects the digestive system as well as other body systems that you might not expect. The most common gastrointestinal (digestive) symptoms of celiac disease are weight loss and diarrhea, but can also include:
- Abdominal pain
- Feeling bloated or too full all the time
- Unusual stool (ex. pale, greasy bowel movements)
- Nausea and Vomiting
- Decreased appetite
Other symptoms you might experience include:
- Bone or joint pain
- Depression and anxiety
- Sores in the mouth
- Tingling and numbness in hands and feet
- Itchy skin rashes
There are other problems related to celiac disease that your doctor will look for:
- Weak bones or osteoporosis
- Iron deficiency anemia (low blood counts due to low iron)
- Slow growth in children
How common is celiac disease?
Celiac disease occurs in about 1 in 133 people.
What causes celiac disease?
The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, but scientists do know that it is an autoimmune disorder that can run in families. There are certain environmental factors such as a viral infection, pregnancy and childbirth that may trigger the disease in someone who is already at risk. High-risk groups include those with first and second degree relatives with celiac disease. Other individuals at high risk include those with autoimmune diseases such as Type 1 Diabetes and Autoimmune Thyroiditis, as well as some genetic disorders.
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
Celiac disease can be difficult to diagnose because the symptoms are often similar to other medical conditions. If a person is thought to have celiac disease, they will likely need to have further testing that may include:
- Blood tests
- Biopsy of the small intestine (you would be referred to see a specialist to perform this procedure)
These tests require you to be on a gluten containing diet in order to be accurate in the diagnosis of celiac disease. If you think you may have celiac disease you should continue gluten in your diet and contact the Student Health Center at 812-855-7688 or schedule an appointment online to discuss further with a healthcare provider.
How is celiac disease treated?
Since the symptoms of celiac disease are caused by a reaction to gluten, the main treatment is to avoid eating foods that contain gluten. Complete elimination of gluten from the diet generally allows the small intestine to heal and enables the body to properly absorb the nutrients from food. Most people feel better even within 2 weeks of starting a gluten-free diet. A person with celiac disease should maintain a gluten-free diet for the rest of their life. If they were to resume eating gluten, the small intestine would again become damaged and their symptoms would return.
There are many gluten-free foods that you can find in regular grocery stores and specialty markets. There are also many delicious recipes made with naturally gluten-free foods. Learning how to follow a gluten-free diet can be challenging at first but feeling better is worth it! If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, meeting with a dietician can also help create an individual gluten-free meal plan for you. Talk with your provider for more information about a dietician referral.
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