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What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune condition that affects the absorption of nutrients in the small intestine. The autoimmune reaction involved in celiac disease is triggered by the consumption of a protein found in wheat, barley and rye, called gluten. If people with celiac disease consume even a little bit of gluten, they suffer from inflammation and damage to the lining of the gastrointestinal tract, which can cause gastrointestinal symptoms plus symptoms of malnutrition due to poor absorption of nutrients. Serious vitamin and mineral deficiencies can also develop in people who are suffering from celiac disease.

The first and most important step towards treating celiac disease is to avoid consuming any gluten from any sources. Gluten is a structural protein in wheat and some other grains, and it is responsible for the binding and elasticity of bread dough. Gluten is sometimes also added as a thickener to some foods and sauces, so people with celiac disease have to look out for gluten in unexpected sources. A gluten-free diet insures that the inflammation of the small intestine stops and the lining of the intestine can begin to heal. However, this process of reversing the damage already done to the digestive system can take months to reverse, so recovery from the intestinal damage is a slow process.

If a person with celiac disease continues to eat wheat gluten, the intestines become more and more damaged and nutrient absorption gets poorer and poorer. Serious malnutrition and loss of bone density may result. Chronic inflammation and damage to the intestines may also greatly increase the risk of developing intestinal cancer. This is why avoiding gluten is so important for the health of people with celiac disease. Even if a gluten-free diet doesn’t improve symptoms of intestinal damage right away, it gives you the chance to recover and prevents more serious complications from occurring.

Celiac disease can develop at any point during a person’s life. The symptoms of celiac disease in infants may be different than the symptoms of celiac disease in adults, but the signs of intestinal damage that show up on a biopsy are the same. Infants with celiac disease who are placed on a gluten-free diet may recover faster from damage to the intestinal lining than adults.

Celiac disease is not a true food allergy. People can be allergic to components of wheat, but a different immune system mechanism is involved and the symptoms of a wheat allergy and celiac disease are different. In a wheat allergy, an antibody type called immunoglobulin E (IgE) is produced, which causes the excess production of a chemical called histamine in the body. In milder allergic responses to wheat, symptoms occur like digestive complaints, hives or skin rashes, pain and cold-like symptoms. In more severe allergic reactions, it is possible for a person to go into anaphylactic shock upon exposure to an allergen. Anaphylactic shock is a serious medical emergency that causes swelling of the airways.

In contrast to a wheat allergy, celiac disease involves a different class of antibodies that only target the lining of the small intestine instead of creating a widespread histamine response. Wheat allergies do not cause damage to the small intestine like celiac disease does, because the antibodies produced have a different target. IgE antibodies stimulate histamine-producing cells called mast cells, while the antibodies involved in celiac disease target the cells lining the small intestine and damage them. Celiac disease is also different from “gluten intolerance,” where people experience digestive symptoms after eating wheat gluten but suffer no damage to their intestines.