Health experts used to think celiac disease, a digestive condition that causes an intolerance to gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, barley and rye, was a rare condition. They tended to attribute its symptoms—abdominal pain, bloating, gas and diarrhea—to other digestive or nervous disorders. But a recent study shows as many as one in 133 Americans may have the disease. What’s more, celiac disease may surface at any age and on average goes undiagnosed for 11 years. Since this auto-immune disorder puts sufferers at risk for malnutrition and complications like osteoporosis, anemia, nerve damage, seizures and gastrointestinal cancer, it’s crucial that people with the condition be diagnosed and treated.
When someone with celiac disease eats a food that contains gluten, his or her immune system reacts by destroying digestive enzymes and the small intestine’s lining—specifically, the tiny hairlike protrusions called villi that line the small intestine and transfer nutrients into the bloodstream. When that happens, nutrients from food can’t be digested and absorbed, causing stomach distress. In addition to digestive problems, people with celiac disease may experience fatigue; weight loss; gassiness; anemia; joint, bone or muscle pain; seizures; leg numbness; skin rash; tooth discoloration; foul-smelling bowel movements; a disrupted menstrual cycle; and delayed growth (in children).
Doctors can’t explain why gluten causes this immune reaction or why certain people have a gluten intolerance, but it’s more common among those with other autoimmune disorders such as lupus, rheumatoid arthritis or type 1 diabetes. For some people, the first symptoms appear after contracting a viral infection, having surgery, giving birth or experiencing a stressful event.
To diagnose celiac disease, your doctor will perform a physical exam and order blood tests to detect specific antibodies. If the results point to celiac disease, your doctor may order a biopsy to inspect your intestinal tissue for damage.
To stop your symptoms, your doctor will recommend a gluten-free diet. A gluten-free diet is the only way to treat celiac disease. Eliminating the gluten in your diet can be tricky. Breads, crackers and pasta are obvious sources, but gluten can be in everything from beer and soy sauce to nondairy creamers, mouthwash, store-bought gravies and salad dressings. A registered dietitian can teach you how to check food labels and plan a diet that will restore your health.
After several weeks on the diet, intestinal inflammation should subside. It may take one or two years, but the intestinal lining will usually repair itself (except in a small number of people whose intestinal damage is so severe they need special nutritional treatment).