Celiac Disease Basics: Understanding CD
Celiac disease or “CD” is a common genetic disorder that affects millions of people in the United States. Yet this condition often goes diagnosed, leading to chronic health problems. Lack of awareness is the top challenge preventing patients from understanding this disease and taking action to improve their wellbeing.
What Is Celiac Disease?
This autoimmune disease is caused by an abnormal response to gluten, a protein found in grains such as wheat, rye, and barley. The body’s immune reaction causes irritation in the small intestine, reducing the absorption of nutrition from food. Chronic disease is the result of tissue inflammation and nutrient malabsorption.
CD only occurs in people who are genetically predisposed, and it tends to run in families. However, not everyone with the specific genes linked to the disease will develop symptoms. Although some people become symptomatic as children, others develop the disease much later in life.
Symptoms of Celiac Disease
Because intestinal health and nutrition affect the entire body, this disorder is linked to hundreds of symptoms. Some of the most common warning signs in adult patients include:
- Diarrhea, constipation, gastric reflux, or heartburn
- Iron-deficiency anemia
- Bone and joint discomfort or arthritis
- Depression, anxiety, irritability, or other mood problems
- Ulcers in the mouth
- Headaches, seizures, or other neurological issues
- Tingling or numbness in extremities
- Fertility and menstrual abnormalities
- Red, blistering skin rash
Children and teens are more likely to experience stomach discomfort such as bloating, diarrhea, and constipation. If the disease is severe, it can prevent weight gain, stunt growth, and delay puberty. Tooth enamel may also be eroded and discolored in celiac children, leading to lifelong dental problems. Even patients who don’t have noticeable symptoms may eventually experience serious health problems such as osteoporosis, malnutrition, and liver damage.
How Is Celiac Disease Diagnosed?
CD is identified with blood testing and an intestinal biopsy. The blood tests show if antibodies related to gluten intolerance are present. An intestinal tissue sample can determine the extent of damage to the villi. These outpatient tests are currently the best tools to distinguish between celiac and illnesses like chronic fatigue syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome that can cause similar symptoms. Genetic testing can be used to rule out this disorder—if neither of the two genes linked to celiac are present, it can’t be celiac. Genetic tests are also used to determine if a patient’s family members are at risk.
Can This Condition Be Treated?
There are currently no medical treatments that can normalize the body’s response to gluten. Medications and supplements can sometimes help reduce acute symptoms over the short term. At this time, the only effective treatment is a change in diet to eliminate foods that contain gluten. Patients who succeed in removing all gluten from their diet are often able to control or eliminate their symptoms. However, restoring good health can be a lengthy process. While children often recover quickly, adults may need longer to adjust after decades of gluten exposure. The intestine may take months or years to heal from the damage of celiac disease.