What is Celiac Disease?
Celiac Disease is an auto-immune disorder that causes a variety of symptoms when the body is exposed to gluten, a protein which is found in wheat, rye, barley, triticale and possibly oats. The only treatment for Celiac Disease is a gluten-free diet. The diet is a life-long commitment and may seem overwhelming initially, however, in time it becomes second nature. At first thought, it may seem that simply removing a few foods from your diet will eliminate gluten, but these grains are used in many ways, acting as everything from a filler to a preservative in many different foods. People with Celiac Disease must be diligent about knowing the content of all their food to make sure they are completely eliminating gluten from their diet.
What is gluten?
Gluten is a protein which acts as a binder. It exists in many grains, however it is the gluten in wheat, rye, barley and triticale (a hybrid of wheat and barley) and possibly oats that causes an auto-immune response in people with Celiac Disease. Foods that are termed “gluten-free” are referring to the gluten protein in these grains and are safe for people with Celiac Disease. More research is being done on oats because it is not clear whether the auto-immune response is due to the oat gluten or to the fact that oats are often contaminated by the other three grains. There are gluten-free oats available on the market.
Gluten provides elasticity in foods. When it is absent, there is a noticeable difference, especially in foods such as breads, cakes, and pastas. Fortunately, there are now many companies and bakeries that are making gluten-free flours and other products that are very close to if not better than gluten containing products. They often use products such as xanthum gum, guar gum or gelatin to replace the elasticity in the foods.
How does gluten affect a person with Celiac Disease?
When gluten is ingested by a person with Celiac Disease and it reaches their small intestine, their body views it as a toxin. The body then releases antibodies to attack the gluten, attacking itself in the process. This damages the intestine, reducing the surface area through which the body can absorb nutrients. The lack of nutrients can result in conditions such as anemia, skin rashes, depression, short stature in children and miscarriage in pregnant women just to name a few. The damaged intestine then also allows foods to pass through the intestine unprocessed, often leading to diarrhea. If gone untreated over a long period of time, Celiac Disease has also been known to lead to lymphoma, which is a form of cancer, so staying on a gluten-free diet is important.
- abdominal pain
- weight loss/weight gain
- bone or joint pain
- behavioral changes
- tingling in the legs
- muscle cramps
- missed menstrual periods
- failure to thrive in infants
- sores in the mouth
- tooth discoloration or loss of enamel
How is Celiac Disease diagnosed?
Celiac Disease is typically diagnosed through a two step process. The first step is a panel of five blood tests that look for the antibodies produced to attack gluten. If these tests detect the antibodies, the second step is usually an upper endoscope. In this procedure, a gastroenterologist will take a biopsy of the small intestine to look for damage. If the damage is noted, a lifelong gluten free diet will be the recommended treatment. It is best not to start a gluten free diet before diagnosis because this will begin the healing process on the intestine and may make it more difficult for the doctor to say for certain that the patient has Celiac Disease.