Understanding Celiac Disease
Celiac disease is a digestive immune condition that can drastically affect one’s quality of life. However, once diagnosed, it can be treated and managed with dietary adjustments.
Celiac disease is a condition that has existed for millennia but was not officially identified and categorized until the late 19th century. Also known as “celiac sprue,” or “gluten-sensitive enteropathy,” celiac disease is an immune disorder in which a person’s own cells attack their digestive system. The incidence of celiac disease is on the rise in the Western world.
Here is everything you need to know about celiac disease and how our care teams at Lompoc Valley Medical Center can help you or a loved one manage this affliction.
What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease results from dysfunction within an individual’s gastrointestinal tract, particularly the small intestine. For reasons that scientists suspect are genetic, people with celiac disease cannot digest wheat proteins known as gluten. Gluten is found in many Western foods, such as bread and pasta. It is also found in barley, rye, and other non-food substances, such as vitamins or lip balm.
When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, an immune response is triggered. Their own immune cells attack the lining of their small intestine. When the small intestine cells are damaged, a person cannot properly absorb food and nutrients.
What Are The Symptoms of Celiac Disease?
A person’s experience with celiac disease can vary. However, some of the most common symptoms of celiac disease include the following:
- Abdominal pain
- Stool changes (greasy, loose, foul odor)
- Weight loss
Some people with celiac disease experience symptoms outside of the gastrointestinal tract as well, including the following:
- Skin rash (known as dermatitis herpetiformis)
- Irritability (particularly in children)
- Signs of nutritional deficits such as slowed growth, delayed puberty, or infertility.
- Bone or joint pain
- Damage to tooth enamel, canker sores, dry mouth, or tongue changes
- Nerve pain or tingling
While some people may have classic symptoms, other people with celiac disease will have no disease symptoms. For this reason, researchers suspect that celiac disease is underdiagnosed within the population.
How is Celiac Disease Diagnosed?
If you or someone you love is experiencing symptoms of celiac disease, it is essential to get a thorough digestive evaluation. A clinician evaluating for celiac disease will take a careful medical history, conduct a physical exam (with special attention to the mouth, skin, and abdomen), and obtain specific blood tests.
To help with the diagnosis, your medical provider may also recommend a biopsy (small tissue sample) of the small intestine so that the damaged cells can be directly visualized. For some people, more testing may be needed, such as genetic tests or skin biopsies.
Who is Most Likely to Get Celiac Disease?
An estimated 2 million people in the U.S. have celiac disease, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Disease (NIDDK). Both children and adults can get celiac disease. In the U.S., women are more likely to have a celiac disease diagnosis.
Celiac disease is more common in people who have certain genes. Having two specific gene variants (DQ2 and DQ8) makes a person more likely to develop celiac disease. Still, only 3 percent of people with these genes will develop the condition, according to the NIDDK.
What Are Other Conditions Similar to Celiac Disease?
Celiac disease might be confused with gluten intolerance or a wheat allergy. In both cases, the body is reacting negatively to the presence of gluten or wheat. However, neither a gluten intolerance nor a wheat allergy will cause damage to a person’s small intestine.
Other digestive conditions, such as inflammatory bowel disease, or irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), may also cause similar symptoms in celiac disease.
Other conditions that are common in people with celiac disease include the following:
- Type 1 Diabetes
- Thyroid disease
- IgA deficiency
- Sjogren’s syndrome
- Autoimmune hepatitis
When a person’s small intestine is damaged by celiac disease, they also become more likely to develop other digestive disorders and food intolerances, such as lactose intolerance.
How is Celiac Disease Treated?
The treatment for celiac disease is very straightforward. To stop the immune attack against the small intestine that occurs when a person eats gluten, a person should adopt a strictly gluten-free diet. By removing gluten from the diet, a person can dramatically improve their condition and start seeing improvement of their symptoms within days.
Adopting a Gluten-Free Diet
Even if you know you should avoid wheat, barley, and rye, it can be difficult to decipher how to institute a gluten-free diet. Many foods that you might not suspect have gluten still contain a small amount of protein, so it is important to read food labels and talk to your medical provider about things you may be ingesting that could contain gluten.
Asking your medical provider for a referral to a nutritionist or dietitian can be very helpful, especially when you are just getting started on a gluten-free diet. It can also be beneficial to keep a food diary.
If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, you can also visit the NIDDK celiac center for tips on how to keep a gluten-free diet. However, it is important not to start this diet before speaking with a medical provider, as it can interfere with your ability to get correctly diagnosed.
When it comes to the symptoms of celiac disease that occur outside of the small intestine, such as skin rashes, medication may be helpful. Additionally, depending on the degree of damage to your small intestine, you may also need supplemental vitamins.
What Is The Outlook For People With Celiac Disease?
The outlook for people with celiac disease is generally excellent, provided they can adhere to a strictly gluten-free diet. Many of the symptoms of celiac disease go away entirely once a person stops eating gluten. If a person does return to eating gluten, symptoms may also return, so many people are highly motivated to follow a gluten-free diet.
If celiac disease has been present undetected and untreated for a long time, people can experience other medical complications. These can include:
- Vitamin deficiencies
- Nervous system problems
- Reproductive problems
- Rarely liver damage, liver cancer, small intestine cancer, or non-Hodgkin lymphoma.
Less commonly, people will still struggle to maintain proper nutrition even after switching to a gluten-free diet. In these cases, they may have to work with a nutritional specialist to receive an adequate supply of critical vitamins and minerals.
How to Learn More About Celiac Disease
To learn more about celiac disease or be evaluated for celiac-like symptoms, contact our primary care team at Lompoc Valley Medical Center today.