Celiac disease, also known as gluten-sensitive enteropathy, is a somewhat common immune disorder that causes a reaction to eating gluten which is a protein found in rye, barley, and wheat. People who have celiac disease have an immune response to gluten in the small intestine that, over time, causes damage to the lining of the intestine and causes malabsorption of nutrients. This damage eventually leads to symptoms like bloating, anemia, fatigue, and weight loss as well as more serious complications if the condition isn't managed.
Celiac disease has no cure, but it can be well managed with a strict diet free of gluten.
Causes of Celiac Disease
Celiac disease isn't very well understood but it's believed to be caused by genetics as well as eating gluten and sometimes a trigger. It's possible that diet during infancy, gut bacteria, and gastrointestinal infections may also contribute to later developing celiac disease.
For some people, celiac disease becomes active initially after some type of trigger such as a viral infection, childbirth or pregnancy, surgery, or severe stress. It is known that genetic variations increase the risk of celiac disease although having a genetic predisposition will not guarantee the development of the condition. In fact, about 40% of the population has one or both genes associated with celiac disease but only 1% of the population has the condition.
Celiac disease can affect men and women of all ages and backgrounds. It's most common among Caucasian people but it is found in many ethnic groups around the world. A family history of dermatitis herpetiformis or celiac disease can increase the risk as well as conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome, and autoimmune thyroid disease.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
There are many symptoms of celiac disease. These symptoms depend on age as well as how long the condition has been active and unmanaged. As a rule, celiac disease causes fatigue, weight loss, and diarrhea but some people also have nausea, abdominal pain, gas, bloating, and constipation.
In addition to these common gastrointestinal symptoms that serve as hallmarks of the disease, at least 50% of people with celiac disease also develop other symptoms that may seem unrelated at first:
- Joint pain
- Nervous system symptoms like tingling and numbness in the hands and feet and cognitive impairment
- Mouth ulcers
- Dental enamel damage
- Dermatitis herpetiformis or blistery and itchy rashes on the skin
In children, celiac disease may cause failure to thrive, delayed puberty, diarrhea, constipation, short stature, and weight loss. It may also present with neurological problems like ADHD, learning disabilities, poor muscle coordination, and even seizures.
Treatments for Celiac Disease
The only effective treatment option for celiac disease is a strict and lifelong diet completely free of gluten to avoid symptoms and complications. Gluten is found in grains like wheat, rye, barley, and triticale, which is a cross of rye and wheat. Seeds can also contain gluten. Removing gluten from your diet can be difficult as gluten is found in a huge amount of foods in the Western diet. A gluten-free diet should be rich in dairy, seafood, poultry, meat, vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and legumes. A healthy gluten-free diet can require getting creative such as using safe gluten-free grains in recipes like rice, gluten-free oats, certain nut flours, millet, and quinoa.
People with celiac disease are often deficient in certain vitamins and nutrients so supplements are often required to receive enough iron, fiber, magnesium, calcium, zinc, vitamin D, and vitamin B12.
By adopting a gluten-free diet, most people with celiac disease do eventually absorb nutrients properly again as the small intestine heals. Medication is usually not required for celiac disease although it may be necessary to treat dermatitis herpetiformis.
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