by Kimberly Allen, RN
Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder affecting the digestive system. More specifically the lining of the small intestine. The prevalence of celiac disease has been increasing rapidly in the US over the past 50 years. While celiac disease can develop in anyone at anytime it is more commonly diagnosed in children between 6 months to 2 years of age and is a chronic life-long condition. Currently there are approximately 1 in every 130 people living with celiac disease in the US. Many experts believe that number to be low, that there are many people that don’t realize they have celiac disease so have not been diagnosed. However, with increasing awareness about celiac disease as well as improved testing techniques more people are seeking treatment.
People with celiac disease are unable to properly digest a particular protein called gluten. Gluten is in many of the foods we eat everyday such as bread and crackers as well as pasta. Any food that contains wheat, barley or rye has gluten in it. For most people eating these grains is not a problem, however, for someone with celiac disease it causes an allergic reaction to occur. As our intestine matures it develops microscopic hair like projections called villi in the lining. The villi are responsible for absorbing the nutrients that you consume into your body. When a person with celiac disease consumes something with gluten, the immune system triggers a response to an allergen. This causes the villi to become inflamed and damaged even killing many. As the villi become damaged or destroyed your body is less and less able to absorb the nutrients needed to feed your body.
While experts are unable to say what the exact cause of celiac disease is they do know that it can run in families. They have also discovered that there are certain gene mutations that appear to increase your risk of developing celiac disease. However, having any of those gene mutations does not indicate that you will have celiac disease.
One of the reasons celiac disease is difficult to diagnose is that the symptoms tend to mimic those of other gastrointestinal conditions like irritable bowel syndrome, Crohn’s disease and parasite infections as well as anemia. Typically, a person with celiac disease will experience diarrhea as well as have excess fat in their stools and an increase in flatulence. Most will also exhibit weight loss, iron deficiency anemia as well as abnormal bleeding. Children with celiac disease usually don’t grow properly and have difficulty staying healthy due to the body’s inability to absorb sufficient vitamins and minerals from the food they eat.
Although there is no cure for celiac disease it can be managed effectively by making changes to your diet. Gluten needs to be eliminated from the diet of a person with celiac disease. This means avoiding any foods that have barley, bulgur, durum, farina, graham flour, rye, simolina, spelt, triticale and wheat. A dietitian can help you learn how to read labels and understand which products contain gluten. The dietitian will also be able to help you learn how to plan and prepare a gluten free diet that is also healthy. Then, after you’ve stopped consuming gluten the inflammation in your small intestine will start to diminish over the next few weeks. However, many experience symptom relief with in a few days. Though you may start feeling better depending on the extent of the damage done to the villi it can take up to 2 to 3 years for the villi to completely heal and regrow. Many doctor’s also recommend vitamin and mineral supplements to improve the levels of certain vitamins and minerals that are missing in a gluten free diet. Even though these vitamin and mineral supplements can be taken by mouth in a pill people with celiac disease have difficulty absorbing them and tend to require injections so that the vitamins and minerals will be absorbed.
Kimberly Allen is a registered nurse with an AND in nursing. She has worked in ACF, LCF and psychiatric facilities, although she spent most of her career as a home health expert. She is now a regular contributor to HealthAndFitnessTalk.com, dispensing advice and knowledge about medical issues and questions. You can reach her with any comments or questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.