When a doctor diagnosed me with celiac disease in 2000, none of my friends had heard of it. Chances are that you’ve heard of it, but you might still be wondering, what is celiac disease? Here are the basics and why you might not even know that you have it.
Celiac Disease is an Autoimmune Disease
Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease which affects both children and adults. In people with celiac disease, the body reacts to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye, and barley, setting off an autoimmune reaction. This reaction causes the body to produce antibodies which attack and damage the small intestine. Specifically, damage is done to the villi which line the small intestine and are to crucial nutrient absorption.
Celiac disease is not a food allergy. Allergies can be outgrown, but as an autoimmune disease, celiac disease cannot be outgrown.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
Symptoms of celiac disease can include diarrhea or constipation, weight loss, other gastrointestinal problems, malnutrition, and failure to thrive (in children). It also affects other organs in the body and can lead to irritability, poor concentration, fatigue, bone and joint problems, anemia, fertility problems, depression, and problems of the nervous system. These are just a few of the symptoms related to celiac disease. Check out more symptoms at GlutenDude.com.
Celiac Disease Diagnosis
Blood tests and small bowel biopsy are the gold standard of diagnosis. The celiac panel blood tests include tissue transglutaminase (tTG) and anti-gliadin (AGA) tests. A positive tTG result is very suggestive of celiac disease. A positive AGA result can indicate celiac disease or wheat allergy.
Typically, a doctor will have the blood tests done, and if they are positive, you will schedule an endoscopy. During the endoscopy, the doctor will take a number of biopsies from the small intestine. The purpose of the biopsy is to look for damaged villi under a microscope.
Treatment for Celiac Disease
There is no cure and there are currently no drugs to treat celiac disease. The good news is that there is treatment in the form of a gluten-free diet. People with celiac disease can lead healthy lives by completely avoiding gluten. Once on a gluten-free diet, the villi in the small intestine will heal over time and the consequences of that damage can, in many instances, right itself.
Intestinal damage leads to lack of nutrient absorption causing many of the symptoms of celiac disease. For instance, poor iron absorption could lead to anemia. When the intestine heals, the body can absorb these nutrients again.
Can I have celiac disease and not know it?
Yes! A prevalence study done by the Center for Celiac Research found that 1 in 133 people have celiac disease, but many of those people have not been diagnosed. This mainly occurs because there are so many possible symptoms of celiac disease, and some people don’t have the typical gastrointestinal symptoms that doctors expect.
Others don’t seem to have symptoms at all. Celiac disease is genetic, so it’s a good idea to have family members tested after a person is diagnosed. Some people who don’t have obvious symptoms get diagnosed this way, even though they never suspected anything was wrong with them. After going gluten free, most people react to consuming gluten. However, there are people who can eat gluten and suffer no consequences that they’re aware of, but damage to the villi is still occurring which can lead to other problems.
More and more people are having problems with gluten, and some of them have non-celiac gluten sensitivity. They can have the same wide range of symptoms, which are often severe, but they do not have the autoimmune response that causes damage to intestinal villi. Treatment is the same – a gluten-free diet.
What does celiac mean?
Many people use the term “celiac’s” as in, “I have celiac’s.” Celiac is not a person’s name, but rather it comes from a Latin word meaning “of the bowels.” You will sometimes see it spelled coeliac, particularly in Europe. The correct pronunciation see-lee-ak.
What should you do?
If you think that you have might have celiac disease, see a doctor and get tested before going gluten free. After being on a gluten-free diet, the tests for celiac become inaccurate because antibodies go away and the intestine heals. If the tests are negative, you can still try going gluten free at that point to see if you have gluten sensitivity.