Celiac disease is a digestive disease that interferes with the absorption of food nutrients. Gluten -- found in foods containing wheat, barley and rye -- causes the immune system to damage the small intestines in people with celiac disease.
The disease is genetic, or it can be triggered by surgery, pregnancy, viral infection or emotional stress.
What causes celiac disease?
The exact cause of celiac disease isn't known. But having certain genes increases your risk. You are more likely to have these genes if you have a first-degree relative who has celiac disease. A first-degree relative is a mother, father, brother, sister, son, or daughter.
Environmental factors, such as infections, may trigger changes in the small intestine of a person with these genes. Eating foods that contain gluten can then trigger an abnormal immune system response. Over time, this response can cause problems with digestion and absorbing nutrients.
Celiac disease: Overview
Celiac disease (or celiac sprue) is a problem with digesting gluten. Gluten is a type of protein found in wheat, rye, and other grains. This problem starts when the body’s immune system attacks the small intestine when gluten is eaten. The immune system is supposed to fight off viruses and other invaders, but sometimes it turns on the person’s own body. (This is called an autoimmune disease.) Celiac disease seems to run in families.
Celiac disease causes damage to the small intestine. This makes it hard for the body to absorb vitamins and other nutrients. You cannot prevent celiac disease. But you can stop and reverse the damage to the small intestine by eating a strict gluten-free diet.
Symptoms are varied and can develop during childhood or adulthood. Some people with celiac disease may not experience any symptoms. Others may be unaware that their symptoms result from celiac disease. Common celiac disease symptoms include:
- Chronic diarrhea
- Bone or joint pain
- Tingling or numbness in legs
- Presence of pale sores, called aphthous ulcers, that develop in the mouth
- Tooth discoloration
- Unexplained low red blood cell count (anemia)
- Pale or fatty stool
Following a gluten-free diet is the only treatment for celiac disease. Although a gluten-free diet is restrictive, there are effective substitutes for most gluten-containing foods. Gluten is also used in some medications and vitamins, so check with your pharmacist to learn which ones are safe for you to take.
Caring for yourself when you have celiac disease
Having celiac disease means that you will need to follow a gluten-free diet from now on. This can be hard, especially if you don't have symptoms.
These tips may help.
Get lots of advice.
Dietitians, other health experts, and celiac disease support groups can give you lots of help. Try keeping a food diary until you are more familiar with planning meals without gluten.
Watch out for hidden gluten.
Read labels on prepared or processed food carefully. For example, "hydrolyzed vegetable protein" may come from wheat and contain gluten.
It's best to keep gluten-free foods in a separate cupboard. Make sure that your kitchen counters, utensils, and appliances are clean and free of gluten before you use them. Use a separate toaster for gluten-free breads.
Talk to waiters.
When you eat out, let your server know that you have special dietary needs.
Check your (or your child's) weight weekly.
This helps you make sure that you're getting enough nutrients.
Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables.
This helps you avoid constipation. If you need to, use gluten-free commercial fiber preparations, such as those that contain rice bran.