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What is celiac disease?
Celiac disease is a digestive disorder that causes problems in your small intestine. You experience the problems when you eat foods that have gluten. Gluten is a protein found in the grains wheat, rye, and barley.
In people who have celiac disease, gluten causes the immune system to attack the small intestine. This damages the small intestine. When this happens, your body doesn’t absorb or get the important nutrients it needs. These include vitamins, calcium, protein, carbohydrates, and fats. Your body can’t work well without these nutrients.
What are the symptoms of celiac disease?
Some people with celiac disease don’t notice or have symptoms. But most people do have symptoms. Symptoms include:
In infants and young children
- Digestive trouble, such as abdominal pain, vomiting, diarrhea, and constipation.
- Feeling irritable, fretful, emotionally withdrawn, or excessively dependent.
- Failure to grow and gain weight.
- Damage to tooth enamel.
- Being overweight or obese.
- Digestive issues such as diarrhea and constipation.
- Delayed puberty.
- Slowed growth and short height.
- Hair loss.
- Digestive symptoms, such as diarrhea or constipation (less likely than children).
- General feeling of poor health, including fatigue, bone or joint pain.
- Irritability, anxiety and depression.
- Missed menstrual periods in women.
- Osteoporosis (loss of calcium from the bones) and anemia.
Other common symptoms in people of any age with celiac disease include:
- Lactose intolerance (a problem digesting milk products).
- Dermatitis herpetiformis (an itchy, blistery skin problem).
- Canker sores in the mouth.
CAUSES & RISK FACTORS
What causes celiac disease?
Healthcare providers and researchers don’t know exactly what causes celiac disease. Celiac disease is more common in people who:
- Have a family member with celiac disease. If 1 member of your family has celiac disease, about 1 person out of 10 other members of your family is also likely to have it.
- Have an autoimmune disease, such as type 1 diabetes, rheumatoid arthritis, autoimmune thyroid or liver disease, Addison’s disease, or Sjogren’s syndrome.
- Have a genetic disorder such as Down syndrome or Turner’s syndrome.
If you have celiac disease, you probably won’t know it right away. You may have this disease for a while without getting sick. Then something like severe stress, physical injury, infection, childbirth, or surgery can trigger, or “turn on,” your celiac disease.
DIAGNOSIS & TESTS
How is celiac disease diagnosed?
Celiac disease can be hard to diagnose. Its symptoms are similar to other digestive disorders, such as irritable bowel syndrome. Blood tests can help your healthcare provider diagnose this disease. If your blood test indicates that you might have celiac disease, an intestinal biopsy is often done. Using a thin tube, this takes a small piece of tissue from your small intestine. Positive biopsy results will confirm you have celiac disease. Diagnosis of dermatitis herpetiformis with a positive blood test will also confirm it.
Don’t stop eating gluten before you have a blood test. If you stop eating gluten before your blood test, it can skew your results.
Celiac disease is serious. Fortunately you can control celiac disease by following a gluten-free diet, meaning you don’t eat any gluten for the rest of your life. By following the right diet, you can reverse the damage caused by celiac disease and you’ll feel better. But if you “cheat” on your diet, the damage will come back. Sometimes you may not feel sick right away, so you think it’s okay to eat gluten. But it’s not.
People who follow a gluten-free diet avoid all foods that contain:
- triticale products (including many breads, pastas, cereals and processed foods.)
Foods that don’t contain gluten and are safe to eat include:
Gluten sometimes appears in foods or places you wouldn’t expect:
- It’s used as a thickening agent in many gravies and sauces.
- It’s sometimes used in medicines. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist before taking a new medicine. This includes vitamins and supplements.
- It can be found in lip balm, lipstick, and other cosmetics.
Celiac disease and other gluten sensitivities have become more well-known. Gluten-free eating has become more mainstream. Many restaurants offer gluten-free options. Many grocery stores have gluten-free sections. These mean plenty of gluten-free products can be found.
Living with celiac disease
Learning to be gluten-free may be difficult at first. It will take time for you and your family to learn how to avoid gluten. You’ll have to learn to read ingredient labels and identify the foods that contain gluten. You’ll have to be careful when you buy foods at the grocery store, or when you eat out. You’ll probably have to learn some new cooking recipes.
If you’re looking for help, there are many resources available. Many books and websites provide information, tips, and recipes for gluten-free living. Your local celiac disease support group is a good source of information and support as you transition to gluten-free living. You may also find it helpful to meet with a registered dietitian. A dietitian can help you learn what foods to avoid, how to read food labels, and how to make healthy substitutions for the foods you can no longer eat. Ask your healthcare provider for help finding a certified registered dietitian in your area.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Canadian Celiac Association