Celiac disease (also known as celiac sprue, coeliac disease, non-tropical sprue or gluten sensitive enteropathy) is a chronic and permanent sensitivity to the food protein gluten, found in the grains wheat, barley and rye. Developing celiac disease requires three things: a genetic predisposition; exposure to gluten through digestion; and a trigger that starts an immune system’s injurious response. Celiac disease occurs in people of all ages. It is the most common genetic disorder in North America and Europe, and is found in populations all over the world.
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease, meaning the body attacks itself in an inappropriate immune system reaction. In this case, the reaction is to exposure to gliadin, a protein of the food molecule gluten, which is found in wheat, barley and rye. In most all other autoimmune diseases, the catalyst for starting the body’s inappropriate reaction is not yet known. But celiac disease is the only autoimmune disease for which we know the trigger and therefore can stop it: completely eliminate gluten from your diet.
Once on a gluten-free diet, your body will begin to heal and you should be able to put the disease into remission. Diagnosed children recover more quickly than do adults for whom the mean time to symptom relief is four to eight weeks.
It’s critical to get properly diagnosed if you have celiac disease, and to get diagnosed early. The longer your body suffers with an active autoimmune disease, the more likely you are to also contract or suffer from other conditions like those outlined below.
Celiac disease’s “reaction” is best explained with a review of the small intestines. In a normal, healthy person, the small intestine is lined with shag-carpet-like projections of tissue called villi. Your villi absorb valuable nutrients into your bloodstream. They also block the absorption of certain molecules. Celiac disease makes these intestinal linings abnormally permeable, allowing some molecules, namely gluten, to be absorbed through the gut. Because this leakage allows gluten into areas it wouldn’t normally be allowed to, the body launches an immune assault against it. This assault causes an inflammatory reaction and damages the villi that have absorbed it.
Over time, through repeated absorption and the ensuing damage, these villi are blunted and flattened. This in turn destroys the body’s ability to properly absorb food. The result: intestines that can no longer efficiently or effectively absorb all kinds of nutrients from food. This damage begins a chain reaction in the body that may or may not produce symptoms.
The presence of symptoms depends on how long someone’s body has been actively reacting to gluten, and on how their body presents physical symptoms. The only way to prevent this effect in a person with celiac disease is by adopting a life-long gluten-free diet. There is no magic pill. But compared to any other auto-immune disease, knowing an antidote, so to speak, exists—in the form of a gluten-free diet—should give anyone diagnosed with celiac disease some measure of comfort.
Once a diagnosed celiac patient removes gluten from their diet entirely, their villi will begin to heal, as the intestine renews itself every three days. The amount of time it will take the intestine to fully recouperate once no longer exposed to gluten varies with the individual.
Celiac Disease is often inaccurately equated with other, very different conditions. Gluten sensitivity and wheat allergy sometimes mimic celiac disease symptoms. They’re also treated with a gluten-free diet. But these conditions are quite different from celiac disease. That’s why it’s important to accurately diagnose which condition is causing your distress.
An allergy to wheat is actually very different from celiac disease. A wheat allergy is not an autoimmune disorder at all. Rather, it is someone’s body mistakenly thinking the wheat’s food protein is a true pathogen. So, while you would normally be happy when your body creates antibodies to fight a pathogen, it instead wages war on what, in most people, is a harmless food protein.
In full combat mode, your body attaches these newly created antibodies to the food molecule. This causes still other cells to join in the attack by releasing histamines. The body’s attack may produce a variety of symptoms, usually unique to the individual. Like most true allergies, these symptoms are often rapid and may be severe.
Food allergy symptoms can range from a skin rash to gastrointestinal distress, swelling, migraines or even difficulty breathing. Luckily, once the allergen is removed from the body, or in many cases, if the person takes antihistamines, the body can quickly get back to normal. This rebound differs greatly when compared to the often long-term effects gluten produces in someone with celiac disease.
While not an autoimmune disease like celiac disease, “Gluten Sensitivity,” or “Non-Celiac Gluten Sensitivity” (NCGS) is also relieved by eating a gluten free diet. These food intolerances occur when someone’s body can’t metabolize certain foods. This inability typically is caused by a lack of certain enzymes needed to break down particular food components. People with gluten sensitivity often have many of the same symptoms celiac disease can produce. The difference is that they test negative for celiac disease by bloodwork and endoscopy (there is currently no accepted test to diagnose NCGS). But through trial and error, people with gluten sensitivities learn that gluten is the cause of their discomfort.
Once their gluten-free diet relieves their symptoms, these self-diagnosed people can quickly get back to feeling good and living happy, healthy lives. Unfortunately, without a hard-and-fast celiac disease diagnosis, these people’s decisions to eat gluten free are questioned. Worse, they’re ridiculed or not taken seriously by the people sometimes responsible for safeguarding their meals. Most unfortunate is when they are lumped into a population that has joined ‘the gluten free fad,’ a term arising from the gluten free movement’s tremendous growth, and its increasingly high visibility in the news (in serious reports as well as many that seek to de-value it and make fun of those who genuinely feel better avoiding gluten).
Celiac disease can, unfortunately, create years of unexplained symptoms. That’s because an unhealthy intestinal tract can affect virtually every other system in the body. It’s one of the reasons celiac symptoms are often so difficult to distinguish from the symptoms of many other conditions. One person may have an unexplained history of migraines, someone else of arthritis and yet another of chronic fatigue or thyroid problems. As different as the symptoms are, all may later discover the root cause has been untreated celiac disease. This wide range of symptoms is a great illustration of why it still takes an average of 8 to 10 YEARS from the first symptoms to a medical diagnosis of celiac disease. A whole-body approach to symptoms examination is the best way to begin to evaluate the potential for celiac or other conditions.
Fortunately, extremely accurate blood tests combined with an endoscopic biopsy can ultimately yield a firm, positive diagnosis of celiac disease. It is essential that you insist your doctor take at least 4-6 duodenal biopsies during the endoscopy procedure. The American Gastroenterological Association now recommends that 6 distal duodenal biopsy specimens are necessary for accurate diagnosis because duodenal villous atrophy can be patchy and easily missed if fewer biopsies are taken.
Determining whether celiac disease could be the root of your particular problems is a great first step. As you can see below, the partial list of potential symptoms of celiac disease is as long as it is varied. To complicate things still further, these symptoms can occur individually, or in combination with others; they can occur sporadically or constantly.
To add yet another wrinkle, the majority of people with undiagnosed celiac disease actually suffer no overt symptoms—but they’re still at risk for developing serious complications. Let me repeat this a different way: just because you have few or no symptoms of celiac when you eat gluten does not mean you are “less sensitive” or you have “outgrown” the disease. If you have diagnosed celiac disease, you have it for life, and symptomatic or not, you are putting yourself at risk for a host of other health problems, other autoimmune diseases and even an early death. Your body views gluten as a poison; do not take this lightly. This asymptomatic condition is sometimes called the “Celiac Iceberg.” Just as most of a real iceberg’s mass is unseen, hidden under the water, the majority of a celiac’s risks lie undetected when the person shows no symptoms.
After reading through the long list of potential symptoms of celiac disease, it’s easy to underplay the effects caused by the damage to the small intestine it causes. When the small intestine is damaged, the result is an impaired ability for the body to absorb nutrients, carbohydrates and fats. These absorption issues, in turn, lead to still others.
Untreated celiac disease ultimately leads to malnutrition, which can cause a host of other health problems. Malabsorption of calcium and vitamin D and K can cause osteopenia (reduced mineral content in bones) or even osteoporosis (progressive bone thinning and weakening).
Miscarriage and birth defects can arise due to poor nutrient absorption and other resulting problems. Failure to thrive in infants, short stature and delayed development in children occur when there is a serious lack of nutrition. Anemia is caused by poor absorption of iron or from folic acid and vitamin B12 deficiencies. Further complications of untreated or ignored celiac disease include developing other autoimmune diseases, thyroid problems, reproductive health issues and even cancer. Unlike celiac disease, food intolerances and allergies do not typically cause severe intestinal damage and, therefore, do not generally lead to nutritional deficiencies.
Doctors, nurses, even dentists and hygienists must thoroughly understand and aggressively recommend testing for active celiac disease to prevent future complications. Many times, celiac disease is misdiagnosed as irritable bowel syndrome, anemia, chronic fatigue syndrome. It’s often misdiagnosed as intestinal infection and Crohn’s disease. Anyone suspected of suffering from these conditions, or unexplained symptoms from the list above, needs to insist that their doctor test also for celiac disease.
Imad Absah, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Mayo Clinic says that
“About 1 in 5 children with celiac disease has constipation, so patients with constipation outside the range of what is physiologically normal should be screened. Kids with iron deficiency anemia that’s not responding to treatment should be tested, and any concern about growth should be checked.
“We are doing better at screening because of the vigilance of providers, but it can still be seven or eight years before some children are diagnosed.“
A celiac test can simply be requested as part of an overall blood panel, and should be, in determining the root cause of someone’s health problem(s). A recent multi-facility study showed that when primary care physicians test patients exhibiting any of the variety of symptoms of celiac disease, the rate of diagnosis increases 32-fold to 43-fold! An early diagnosis is crucial to preventing serious consequences from untreated celiac disease. Given the near universal access most of us have to a celiac blood test, there’s little reason for anyone with undiagnosed health issues to not be tested.
As you can see, it is crucial to understand the root cause of your problems with gluten. If you have medically diagnosed celiac disease, your physician must monitor your nutritional deficiencies. He or she must also look for signs of other autoimmune diseases or gastrointestinal cancers, in particular. What’s more, celiac disease is hereditary. Knowing whether or not you have it can help you decide if other family members should be tested to protect their health.
For more information, consult my book, The First Year: Celiac Disease and Living Gluten Free.