Celiac disease is a life-long illness caused by a reaction to ingested gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye, barley and commercial-grade oats. Commonly found in most baked goods, gluten gives that much loved chewy texture to bread.
When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, proteins cause damage to the small finger-like protrusions, or villi, lining the small intestine (see illustration below). This is a problem because the small intestine plays an integral role in absorbing important nutrients which fuel our bodies and keep us healthy and strong.
For those who have celiac disease, getting an early diagnosis is critical. If you are experiencing the following symptoms, you should see your doctor:
- oily, fatty or frothy stools
- inability to gain weight
- abdominal pain
- family history of celiac
Your physician will likely discuss your symptoms and request a blood test. In order for tests to properly detect the disease, you must have gluten in your body so it is important that you do NOT stop eating foods containing gluten until after you have been tested. While blood tests are highly sensitive, an endoscopy is usually done to confirm the diagnosis and assess what damage may have already been done.
If you do have celiac disease, one complication to be particularly mindful of is the possibility of loss of bone mass, which may increase the risk of osteoporosis. It's a good idea to book regular screening tests to ensure your bones stay healthy and strong.
The good news is that not many people have celiac disease -- about 110,000 are diagnosed -- and those that do have it do not require medication or surgery. Treatment requires a commitment to completely removing gluten from your diet for life. This can be challenging but it's getting easier. Many restaurants now offer gluten-free items on their menus and selection of gluten-free foods in grocery stores has grown so much that many now have dedicated shelf space.
To better understand your risks and life after gluten, read
CDHF's Guide to Understanding Celiac Disease