Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disease that affects the digestive system. It is triggered when a person consumes gluten, which is a protein found in rye, wheat, and barley. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system reacts to the protein by attacking the small intestine. The role of the small intestine is to digest food and allow the body to use the nutrients. When the body attacks the small intestine, it damages the lining of the small intestine, resulting in symptoms that include bloating, abdominal pain, and weight loss. Eventually, after the small intestine has suffered damage, it can result in the body’s inability to absorb nutrients, therefore leading to a deficiency of nutrients and health problems.
It is often difficult to tell if children have celiac disease, as the symptoms in children and adults differ.
Symptoms in adults include:
- Weight loss
- Bloating and gas
- Abdominal cramps/pain
- Nausea and vomiting
Adults can also experience a variety of symptoms unrelated to the digestive system, such as:
- Loss of bone density
- Cognitive impairment
- Joint pain
Digestive problems are commonly seen in children with celiac disease, rather than in adults with celiac.
Symptoms in children include:
- Nausea and vomiting
- Weight loss
Symptoms are often not enough to tell if someone has celiac disease. People are more susceptible to celiac disease if they have some of the risk factors listed below:
- Family history of celiac disease and/or dermatitis herpetiformis (itchy skin rash)
- Type 1 diabetes
- Turner Syndrome or Down Syndrome
- Autoimmune thyroid disease
- Microscopic colitis
- Addison’s disease
Diagnosis of celiac disease is through blood tests that check for certain antibodies and biomarkers.
- A serology test detects elevated antibodies which indicate the body is reacting to the gluten protein.
- A genetic test detects human leukocyte antigens in order to eliminate the possibility of celiac disease.
Often following these blood tests is an endoscopy/biopsy of the small intestine to evaluate the damage caused by the body’s response to the gluten protein.
Although there is no cure for celiac disease, a change in diet helps to regulate the symptoms of celiac disease. A gluten-free diet often consists of gluten-free foods and vitamin and mineral supplements to regulate the body’s nutrients. Following a gluten-free diet allows the small intestine to heal. Doctors and dietitians can help guide people on their diet and inform them of gluten-free alternatives. This diet is normally life-long in order to prevent symptoms or a flare-up of the small intestine again. Doctors sometimes prescribe steroids as well to help regulate the inflammation of the small intestine.
It is often difficult for people with celiac disease to eat out at restaurants or buy pre-made food from stores as it is tricky to be one hundred percent certain that a food is truly gluten-free. Stickers on foods say “may contain gluten” as a way to protect the manufacturing companies from lawsuits. However, most of the time the food does not contain gluten itself but has a small chance that it could have been cross-contaminated during the production process. This limits food that people with celiac disease feel safe consuming and buying. The FDA has standards that must be met in order for a food to be labeled as “gluten-free”. The final product must contain, at most, 20 mg/kg (20 parts per million) gluten or less. However, this rule does not apply to alcohol which can contain gluten. This amount of gluten (20 ppm) will not result in any side effects in a person with celiac disease, since it is too small of an amount. Another way people can be sure that they are consuming gluten-free foods is to call a restaurant ahead of time and ask if they have a gluten-free menu or serve alternatives for people with gluten intolerance.
Written by: Sofia H. Davila, Clinical Researcher
Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research. (2021, August 10). Celiac disease. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/celiac-disease/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20352225
NCI Dictionary of Cancer terms. National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/small-intestine
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Eating, diet, & Nutrition for Celiac Disease. National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Retrieved February 20, 2023, from https://www.niddk.nih.gov/health-information/digestive-diseases/celiac-disease/eating-diet-nutrition