What is Celiac disease?
Also known as celiac sprue or gluten-sensitive enteropathy -- is a digestive and autoimmune disorder that results in damage to the lining of the small intestine when foods with gluten are eaten. Gluten is a form of protein found in some grains. The damage to the intestine makes it hard for the body to absorb nutrients, especially fat, calcium, iron, and folate.
Normally, the body's immune system is designed to protect it from foreign invaders. When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system forms antibodies to gluten which then attack the intestinal lining. This causes inflammation in the intestines and damages the villi, the hair-like structures on the lining of the small intestine. Nutrients from food are normally absorbed by the villi. If the villi are damaged, the person cannot absorb nutrients properly and may up malnourished.
- Digestive problems (abdominal bloating, pain, gas, diarrhea, pale stools, and weight loss)
- A severe skin rash called dermatitis herpetiformis
- Iron deficiency anemia (low blood count)
- Musculoskeletal problems (muscle cramps, joint and bone pain)
- Growth problems and failure to thrive (in children)
- Tingling sensation in the legs (caused by nerve damage and low calcium)
- Aphthous ulcers (sores in the mouth)
- Missed menstrual periods
If your doctor suspects you have celiac disease, he or she will perform a careful physical exam and will discuss your medical history with you. He or she may also perform a blood test to measure for higher levels of certain types of antibodies found in people with celiac disease. Your doctor may also perform other tests to evaluate for nutritional deficiencies.
Your doctor may also take a biopsy from the small intestine. To perform a biopsy, the doctor inserts an endoscope (a thin, hollow tube) through your mouth and into the small intestine under mild sedation and takes a sample of the small intestine with an instrument to examine for damage to the villi under a microscope.
If you have celiac disease, you can't eat any foods that contain gluten (including wheat, rye, barley, and oats). Dropping gluten from your diet usually improves the condition within a few days and eventually ends the symptoms of the disease. In most cases, the villi are healed within six months.
You'll have to remain on this diet for the rest of your life; eating any gluten at all can damage the intestine and symptoms can return. Incomplete treatment of celiac disease can increase your risk of complications including infertility, lymphoma, etc.