what is celiac disease

What is Celiac Disease?

According to the Celiac Foundation, 1 out of every 100 people worldwide is affected by celiac disease. Although many people classify celiac disease as a food sensitivity to gluten, it is actually considered an autoimmune disorder. This is because consuming gluten actually causes an extreme immune system response that is more than a dietary upset. In fact, when a person with celiac disease eats gluten, the body’s immune system response produces toxins that destroy intestinal villi. Without these small intestinal protrusions, nutrients are unable to be absorbed properly by the body. 

villi affected by celiac disease

The symptoms of celiac disease can vary depending on the age of the person. While both children and adults can be affected, they often experience different types of symptoms. For example, children with celiac disease exhibit mostly digestive disturbances such as vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, abdominal pain or bloating, weight loss, and pale, foul-smelling stools. Children with celiac disease are also usually smaller than their peers, are tired frequently, and may start puberty late. 

Adults, on the other hand, tend to experience symptoms that affect the entire body. However, this does not mean that they are exempt to digestive disturbances and some adults do experience similar symptoms to those seen in children. With that being said, adults with celiac disease generally exhibit some or all of the following: 

man holding his stomach in pain
  • Anemia
  • Brittle bones
  • Fatigue
  • Joint pain and stiffness
  • Numbness and tingling in the hands and feet
  • Seizures
  • Skin disorders such as Dermatitis herpetiformis (DH)

When it comes to diagnosing celiac disease, your doctor will ask you about your family and medical history. This is because if an immediate family member (child, parent, sibling) is affected by celiac disease then you are at an increased risk of developing the disorder yourself. If your doctor thinks you may be affected by celiac disease, then they will likely order a blood test that evaluates the following: 

  • Antidenomysium (EMA) & anti-tissue transglatiminase (tTGA) antibody levels
  • Complete blood count (CBC)
  • Liver function
  • Cholesterol levels
  • Alkaline phosphatase level
  • Serum albumin level

In some cases where dermatitis herpetiformis is the primary symptom, then your doctor may also order a skin biopsy in addition to bloodwork. If one or more of these tests comes back inconclusive, then your doctor may also perform an upper endoscopy where a tube attached to a small camera will be passed down your esophagus, through your stomach, and into your small intestine to look for damaged villi. Finally, rare cases may also require an intestinal biopsy. 

If you are then diagnosed with celiac disease, your doctor will prescribe a gluten free diet to alleviate your symptoms and prevent the future destruction of intestinal villi. Dietary management of celiac disease is so effective that most patients notice a difference within a matter of days. Luckily, there are now a variety of gluten-free foods available to help make maintaining a gluten-free diet easier than ever before. 

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