By Kayla Cole, RDN, LRD, Outpatient Dietitian at Trinity Health
Celiac disease is a serious autoimmune disease that occurs in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine.
When people with celiac disease eat gluten (a protein found in wheat, rye and barley), their body mounts an immune response that attacks the small intestine. These attacks lead to damage on the villi, small fingerlike projections that line the small intestine, that promote nutrient absorption. When the villi get damaged, nutrients cannot be absorbed properly into the body.
Celiac disease is hereditary, meaning that it runs in families. People with a first-degree relative with celiac disease (parent, child, sibling) have a 1 in 10 risk of developing celiac disease. Treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet.
Celiac disease can be difficult to diagnose because it affects people differently. There are more than 200 known celiac disease symptoms which may occur in the digestive system or other parts of the body. Some people develop celiac disease as a child, others as an adult. The reason for this is still unknown.
Adults are less likely to have digestive symptoms, with only one-third experiencing diarrhea. Adults may have one or several symptoms, not always related to the digestive system, such as:
• unexplained iron-deficiency anemia
• bone or joint pain
• osteoporosis or osteopenia (bone loss)
• liver and biliary tract disorders (transaminitis, fatty liver, primary sclerosing cholangitis, etc.)
• depression or anxiety
• peripheral neuropathy (tingling, numbness or pain in the hands and feet)
• seizures or migraines
• missed menstrual periods
• infertility or recurrent miscarriage
• canker sores inside the mouth
• dermatitis herpetiformis (itchy skin rash)
Does Your Child Have Celiac Disease?
Digestive symptoms are more common in infants and children who may have one or several symptoms. The most common symptoms found in children are diarrhea, decreased appetite, stomachache and bloating, poor growth and weight loss.
The number of ways celiac disease can affect patients, combined with a lack of specific training in medical schools and primary care residency programs, contributes to the poor diagnosis rate in the United States. Currently it is estimated that 80% of the celiac disease population remains undiagnosed.
Some people believe that they can learn to tolerate the symptoms. Unfortunately, even if your symptoms seem mild or you don’t have symptoms at all, permanent damage to your body is happening. There is an average delay of 6-10 years for an accurate celiac disease diagnosis, so receiving a proper diagnosis is critical to your long-term health.
If you or someone you love is dealing with chronic issues with no definitive diagnosis, visit the Celiac Disease Foundation website, and see if this is something you should discuss with your primary care provider.