Celiac Disease Facts

Celiac disease is a hereditary disorder that interferes with the absorption of nutrients from food. When people with celiac disease eat foods containing gluten, their immune system responds by damaging the small intestine. Learn more about celiac disease ›

Symptoms of Celiac Disease

Celiac disease is a genetic disorder that affects your digestive system and damages your small intestines. If you have celiac disease, your body is sensitive to gluten and your immune system reacts abnormally to foods you eat that contain gluten. Gluten is a protein found in foods and products that contain certain grains, such as wheat, oats, barley and rye.

The lining of your intestines is made of many small fingerlike bumps, called villi, that are responsible for digesting and absorbing nutrients. In celiac disease, the villi flatten out and are damaged or destroyed when exposed to gluten. This decreases the amount of surface area that is available to digest and absorb nutrients in the small intestine.

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Celiac Disease: More Common Than You Think

Suppose you or a friend has frequent abdominal distress, bloating and other symptoms that seem to puzzle doctors.

Today, experts believe those doctors should consider celiac disease. Also known as celiac sprue, this illness can cause a range of symptoms and problems. Among them: diarrhea, constipation, bloating, abdominal pain, fatigue, irritability, infertility in women, depression and anemia.

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Gluten Intolerance

People with this disease can't tolerate gluten, a protein in wheat, barley and rye. When gluten is consumed, the body's immune system attacks the lining of the small intestine, which is covered with tiny tiny finger-like projections called villi. These villi, which absorb nutrients from food, are destroyed. The result is a smooth intestinal lining, which absorbs fewer nutrients. Left untreated, celiac disease can cause malnutrition, osteoporosis, vitamin and mineral deficiencies, infertility, intestinal cancer and other health problems. The damage progresses slowly and can begin at any age.

Symptoms vary widely, with no "typical" symptoms; the amount of the intestine affected and the degree of malnutrition influence the severity of the symptoms. They may include recurring abdominal bloating and pain, chronic diarrhea, weight loss, pale stools, muscle cramps, delayed growth in children and unexplained anemia. Because these symptoms are similar to those of other diseases, diagnosis can be difficult and is frequently delayed. Diagnosis usually requires your health care provider asking for detailed information about your medical history and symptoms. Blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine may also be required.

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Getting Out the Gluten

Gluten seems to be the food ingredient non grata these days. Bakers are coming up with recipes for gluten-free cupcakes and baguettes. Anheuser-Busch sells Redbridge, a gluten-free beer made from sorghum. And, of course, times being what they are, you can easily slip into an Internet swirl of blogs and Twittering about gluten-free foods. It's not just talk: cash registers are ringing. By some estimates, the sales of gluten-free foods have tripled since 2004.

Gluten-free food has become more popular partly because doctors are diagnosing more cases of celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder whose symptoms are triggered by gluten, the protein content in wheat, barley, rye, and spelt (an ancient form of wheat that's catching on as a health food). Celiac specialists say the disease isn't diagnosed as often as it should be. As a result, many people suffer with it for years, often after getting other — and incorrect — diagnoses and useless treatments.

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The Wheat Allergy Diet

The key to an allergy-free diet is to avoid all foods or products containing the food to which you are allergic. A wheat allergy is an abnormal response of the body to the protein found in wheat. Wheat products are found in many foods. In order to avoid foods that contain wheat, it is important to read food labels.

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Celiac Disease Runs in Families

Celiac disease is a genetic disease that runs in families. A person can have the disease and not know it until it is triggered by severe stress, pregnancy, surgery, physical injury, infection, or childbirth.

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Your Guide to Celiac Disease


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