What Exactly is Celiac Disease?

Celiac Disease is a condition that causes the patient’s immune system to overreact when the patient eats foods containing gluten. “Well, what the heck does that mean?” one may ask. Let’s start with defining gluten. Gluten is a protein found in many grains, including wheat, rye, and barley. In this case, protein does not refer to dietary protein, such as is found in meat and beans, but instead refers to a sticky substance that helps the grain maintain its shape.

When a person with celiac disease eats an item containing gluten, their immune system reacts incorrectly and attacks the patient’s small intestine. If this immune response is triggered often enough, it can cause damage to the villi, the small finger-like protrusions that line the small intestine. The job of the villi is to promote absorption of nutrients, so damage of the villi may lead to malnutrition, even in affected people with healthy diets. If disregarded, celiac disease may also lead to additional autoimmune disorders, such as Type I diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, or multiple sclerosis.

Celiac disease has no known cure at this time. The only truly effective form of treatment is actually a lifestyle change that involves complete avoidance of gluten. Fortunately, gluten-free diets are becoming more common, which means more options are available to celiac patients, but cross-contamination is still an area of concern. Gluten is a sticky substance that does not easily wash off utensils, cookware, or cutting boards, so simply washing dishes after preparing a gluten-containing food is not likely to adequately remove gluten. Gluten may even linger in the air in an oven. If you live in a mixed-diet household, gluten-free products should always be stored over top of products containing gluten to reduce the risk of cross-contamination from the pantry.

If a celiac patient consumes gluten, they are likely to experience digestive problems. Severity of these symptoms vary on a person-to-person basis, ranging from very mild to quite severe. Some of the more common symptoms include:

  • Diarrhea

  • Gas

  • Bloating

  • Weakness

  • Fatigue

  • Vomiting (though this is more common in children)

Celiac is typically diagnosed by a blood test to check for the antibodies associated with the disease and/or an endoscopy, in which a small, lighted tube is inserted into the small intestine for exploratory purposes. If you suspect you may have celiac disease, schedule an appointment with your doctor.


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