Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which eating gluten causes damage to the small intestine. Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat and barley. Celiac disease can develop at any age, but the risk is greater for those related to someone who also has the condition.

If you have celiac disease, eating any food with gluten in it will cause your immune system to damage the lining of the small intestine, which can limit the small intestine’s ability to absorb nutrients. The damage to the intestine can lead to weight loss, bloating and even diarrhea. Over time, organs throughout the body — such as the brain, bones and liver, among others — may get get the nutrients they need.

Approximately 1 percent of the US population has celiac disease, according to National Foundation for Celiac Awareness, and about 83 percent of those with the disease are undiagnosed or think they have a different illness.

Many people with celiac disease go undiagnosed, partly because the symptoms can be outwardly mild or present as other illnesses. Overall, the symptoms vary significantly from person to person.

Common symptoms of celiac disease include the following:

  • Digestive issues like diarrhea and constipation
  • Anemia (too few red blood cells as a result of an iron deficiency)
  • Damaged tooth enamel
  • Headaches
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain
  • Heartburn
  • Reduced bone density

Because the symptoms of celiac disease vary so widely, the only way to know for sure that you have the disease is through a diagnosis from a doctor.

Diagnosis will most likely involve endoscopic biopsy, a procedure in which a doctor inserts a small camera into the small intestine to assess the damage and take tissue samples. After analyzing the samples, the doctor can tell you whether you have celiac disease.

In place of the endoscopic procedure, you also might be given the option of swallowing a large pill that contains a small camera to take pictures of your small intestine. However, this procedure may not be as effective as the endoscopic biopsy.

The only current treatment for celiac disease is not consuming foods or drinks that contain gluten. This can mean abstaining from treats like baked goods and beer. Other foods that may contain gluten include the following:

  • Pasta
  • Couscous
  • Bread
  • Flour tortillas
  • Cereal
  • Gravy
  • Dressings
  • Sauces

Enlist the help of a dietitian to develop a gluten-free diet that can satisfy all your cravings.

Science hasn't yet discovered the exact cause of celiac disease, but genetic factors appear to play a role. The Celiac Disease Foundation reports that those with a first-degree relative who has the disease have a 1 out of 10 chance of having it, too.

The disease has also been known to appear after events that heavily affect the body, such as emotional stress, pregnancy or childbirth, infections and surgery.

Although many people live with celiac disease for years without realizing it, the condition can pose serious health risks that you should address with your doctor as soon as possible. Such risks include other autoimmune disorders, malnutrition, osteoporosis (weakening of the bones), thyroid disease, infertility and even cancer.

Gastroenterologists can test you for the disease and refer you to a registered dietitian to determine a healthy food plan.

If you are diagnosed with celiac disease, the main thing to remember is to eat only gluten-free foods.

Many people are surprised to find that they do not have celiac disease even though they had all the symptoms. In many cases, they have non-celiac gluten sensitivity.

The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness reports that approximately 18 million Americans have non-celiac gluten sensitivity, which presents similar symptoms but appears to be less severe than celiac disease.

As more and more people in the US and abroad are diagnosed with celiac disease, manufacturers are producing increasing numbers of gluten-free products like flour and beer. Most gluten-free food items are clearly labeled as such.

Celiac disease is a manageable condition that can even promote a healthy diet — colorful vegetables and lean meats are still options. To fill in the gaps in a gluten-free lifestyle, consult with a registered dietitian.

People with celiac disease should be careful to follow their doctors' orders. Eating gluten with celiac disease can severely damage the small intestine and lead to other life-threatening illnesses.

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Review Date: 
June 13, 2012
Overview Video: 
Celiac disease