Celiac disease is a fairly unknown autoimmune disease. One in 100 people worldwide have celiac disease, but doctors believe that 2.5 million Americans are undiagnosed. The longer a person goes without diagnosis and without treatment, the greater their risk for developing many long-term health problems. During Celiac Awareness Month, we want to educate you on the causes and symptoms of this painful and harmful disease.

The Details

Celiac disease is the grandfather of gluten-free. With celiac disease, eating gluten-free is not a fad or a choice, it’s a necessity. Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, and rye. When someone with celiac consumes gluten, their immune system begins attacking their small intestine. This destroys a part of the tissue lining in the small intestine called villi. Villi help your body to absorb nutrients that allows your small intestine—and the rest of your body—to function correctly. Because even small traces of gluten can be harmful and painful if consumed, those with celiac disease must be careful to avoid foods that have been prepared with the same utensils or on the same surfaces as foods that do contain gluten.

The Symptoms

When you consider that gluten causes an immune response that attacks the small intestine, you may believe that symptoms of celiac would be GI related. However, this is not the case. Symptoms can actually be confusing and misleading, which is why many people with celiac disease are misdiagnosed. Adults may experience an unexplained iron-deficiency anemia, arthritis, bone loss, and bone or joint pain as a result of celiac.

Other common symptoms include fatigue, depression and anxiety, peripheral neuropathy, seizures, and migraines. Liver or biliary tract infections, canker sores in your mouth, or a dry, itchy skin rash may indicate celiac disease. Some women suffer from recurrent miscarriages or infertility due to celiac disease. Most of the symptoms linked to celiac disease are also the potential long-term health problems adults will face if celiac disease remains untreated. Once you are diagnosed, it’s important to take your gluten-free diet seriously to prevent any of these long-term problems from occurring.

The Causes

The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, although research indicates that if an immediate family member has celiac disease, there is a 1 in 10 chance that you also have the disease. This indicates a strong connection between celiac disease and genetics. Celiac disease can affect anyone, but it is most common in people who also have Type 1 diabetes, Down syndrome or Turner syndrome, thyroid disease, Addison’s disease, microscopic colitis, and rheumatoid arthritis. In some cases, celiac disease is triggered, or at least becomes active for the first time, after surgery, pregnancy, childbirth, a viral infection, or extreme emotional stress. If you have a family member who has celiac disease or you are concerned that you may have been misdiagnosed, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor.

The Treatment

There is no known cure for celiac disease, but protecting your small intestine and avoiding unnecessary pain is doable if you’re willing to change your diet. Avoiding gluten altogether is the best decision you can make. Fortunately, in this day and age, there are many gluten-free substitutes for bread, pasta, desserts, and snacks. Many restaurants offer a gluten-free menu. But, there are many other delicious foods you can enjoy that don’t have a trace of gluten. Fruits, vegetables, meat and poultry, legumes, nuts, and dairy are all perfectly safe to eat. Naturally gluten-free grains and starch-filled foods include rice, corn, potatoes, beans, quinoa, flax, chia, tapioca, and millet. There may be a learning curve as you cook with different kinds of flour, try new recipes, and read labels carefully. However, this effort will go a long way in making you feel better and keeping your body healthy. 

If you have one or more of the symptoms listed above, or have questions about celiac disease or living with celiac disease, make an appointment at Asheville Gastroenterology Associates.