One of the most misunderstood—and misdiagnosed—gastrointestinal diseases is celiac disease, an autoimmune disorder that attacks the small intestine. Its symptoms may present as gluten-sensitivity, but its impact is far more severe.

Among the symptoms you may experience are recurring bloating, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, weight loss, and fatigue. While any of these may be caused by other illnesses, the combination of several symptoms can point to celiac disease. In some cases, there are no symptoms at all, or they may affect different parts of the body. Since May is Celiac Disease Awareness Month, we want to alert our patients to the inherent perils of the disease and provide information to help everyone who may be at risk.

Risk Factors

One key factor in determining celiac disease is that it is hereditary. If your mother, sibling or child has been diagnosed with it, there’s a good likelihood that you, too, could be a sufferer. So, what exactly is celiac disease? Most significantly, it is an autoimmune disease that essentially “turns against itself,” whereby your immune system attacks healthy cells in your body by mistake. There is no cure for celiac disease. It is also progressive, which means that it will continue to worsen if left undiagnosed and untreated.

Celiac disease affects the villi—long “fingers” lining the small intestine—whose purpose is to extract and absorb nutrients from ingested foods. When the villi are damaged and shortened, their function is impaired and they fail to absorb nutrients for the body. As you can imagine, this disruption in the body’s ability to nourish vital organs and extremities causes widespread damage throughout your system. Your body signals its distress through the severe reactions mentioned above.  

Cutting Out Gluten

Fortunately, the specialists at Asheville Gastroenterology Associates, a division of Digestive Health Partners, can help you learn a new way of eating and living successfully with celiac disease. Since gluten—a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, and sometimes oats—is the main culprit in aggravating celiac disease, you will need to adopt a strict, gluten-free diet. There is no other treatment available that effectively limits the damage to the small intestine.

What some celiac disease patients may not realize is that the treatment is not just a change of diet—it’s a change of life! It may at first seem daunting to banish gluten from your home, your food, and your environment. But take heart—there are many delicious gluten-free foods and recipes that do a great job of mimicking “real” foods without the negative impact of the gluten protein on your system.

Just knowing that you can still enjoy your favorites, like gluten-free noodles, breads, crackers and desserts, without suffering the debilitating effects of products that contain gluten, is a huge stress-reliever in itself. Eventually you won’t notice the difference in taste, but the absence of gluten in your gut and digestive system will enable you to live without the pain or destructive effects that celiac disease imposes.

Consult Your Gastroenterologist

Because autoimmune diseases can be difficult to diagnose, there is a danger that patients may not seek a physician’s help. If no symptoms exist, individuals could go for years being unaware that they do, in fact, have celiac disease. Without treatment, people can develop other health problems, such as diabetes, autoimmune thyroid disease, autoimmune liver disease, rheumatoid arthritis, Addison's disease, and Sjögren's syndrome.

Celiac disease is diagnosed by blood tests and a biopsy of the small intestine, which can be performed by the doctors at Asheville Gastroenterology. If you think you may be at risk for developing celiac disease, schedule an appointment so we can get you on the road to treatment right away.