Celiac disease (aka sprue, nontropical prue, gluten intolerance, & gluten-sensitive enteropathy) is a reaction to gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley, rye, oats and similar grains. The reaction results in damage to the lining of the small intestine, which not only induces uncomfortable physical symptoms but also prevents the digestive system from absorbing important nutrients, leading to significant health issues. Individuals suffering from untreated celiac disease will eventually suffer from malnutrition no matter how much nutritious food they consume.
What causes celiac disease?
Gluten intolerance is essentially the result of gluten sensitivity within the intestines. The exact cause of celiac disease is unknown, but its affects are well documented.
The small intestine is lined with areas known as villi, which are critical to the absorption of nutrients. When a gluten intolerant person consumes gluten, the immune system reacts by attacking the villi. The result is damaged intestinal lining that does not efficiently absorb nutrients.
Gluten intolerance can develop in individuals of any age, from infancy to adulthood. It is most commonly observed in women as well as Caucasians and those of European decent.
Celiac Disease Symptoms
Symptoms can vary widely and can be attributed to other factors, making diagnosing celiac disease very difficult. The more common symptoms include:
- Bloating and gas
- Decreased or increased appetite
- Unexplained weight loss and fatigue
- Indigestion and abdominal pain
- Lactose intolerance
- Nausea and vomiting
- Constant or intermittent diarrhea
- Joint pain and muscle cramps
- Bruising, hair loss and itchy skin
- Depression or anxiety
- Mouth ulcers and nose bleeds
- Missed menstruation
Because gluten intolerance can lead to significant vitamin deficiencies, the condition can also affect the brain, peripheral nervous system, bones, liver and other important organs. Adults with celiac disease are also more predisposed to develop autoimmune disorders, intestinal cancer, type 1diabetes, thyroid disease, bone disease, anemia, hypoglycemia, infertility, and liver disease.
Children with gluten intolerance display additional symptoms including delayed puberty, issues with tooth enamel and color, irritable behavior, growth delays and poor weight gain.
Treating Celiac Disease
If you have been diagnosed with celiac disease, your physician will recommend that you follow a gluten-free diet that eliminates all wheat, barley, rye, and oats. By removing gluten from your diet, you allow the intestinal villi to heal. For children this typically takes 3 to 6 months, while adults may take up to three years to completely heal depending on the level of damage. Once healed, your digestive system will once again be able to absorb the necessary nutrients and reducing or eliminating the unpleasant side effects. Some symptoms such as stunted growth / height and tooth damage are not reversible.
It is not enough, however, to simply avoid gluten. Many physicians recommend that you also pay close attention to over-all intestinal health. Limit dairy, preservatives, and items that may trigger indigestion such as coffee, alcohol, chocolate, thick sauces, and fried foods. It is also helpful to introduce a gentle liquid probiotic into the diet to ensure that the gut is populated with the required beneficial microorganisms. Likewise, ensure that your diet is diverse, filled with nutrient rich “super foods” – especially vegetables – that have not been processed.