Web Only ArticleMay 8, 2014

What Is Celiac Disease?

[Updated December 2, 2015]

Before being diagnosed, many people can't answer the question "What is Celiac Disease?"

Celiac disease is a genetic autoimmune disorder that occurs when the body reacts abnormally to gluten, a protein found in wheat, rye and barley. When people with celiac disease eat foods that contain gluten, an immune-mediated toxic reaction causes damage to their small intestine, as well as other systems in the body.  Celiac disease affects about 1 in 133 people, an estimated 3 million Americans. Approximately 85 percent of these are thought to be undiagnosed.

What is Celiac Disease?

National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse. Illustration by Marty Bee.

Your small intestine is lined with tiny hair-like projections called villi, which work to absorb proteins, lipids and carbohydrates, as well as vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from the foods you eat. Celiac disease results in damage to the villi that leaves your body unable to absorb nutrients necessary for health and growth.

Specialists now confirm that another portion of the population is affected by non-celiac gluten sensitivity.  Individuals with gluten sensitivity experience symptoms similar to celiac disease but without the autoimmune reaction or the intestinal damage.

Celiac disease is a lifelong condition that cannot be outgrown. It is often present without obvious symptoms.  If left untreated by the gluten-free diet, it continues to cause (more or less “silently”) intestinal damage and can lead to the development of conditions such as osteoporosis, infertility and chronic anemia, as well as other related autoimmune disorders and even certain types of cancer. 

A systemic disorder

When a person with celiac disease consumes gluten, their immune system reacts to the gluten by attacking the small intestine and damaging or destroying villi—tiny, fingerlike protrusions lining the small intestine. Villi normally allow nutrients from food to be absorbed through the walls of the small intestine into the bloodstream.

Without healthy villi, nutrients are not properly absorbed and a person becomes malnourished, no matter how much food he eats. This leads to nutritional deficiencies and related health problems and symptoms. Children with celiac disease typically have gastrointestinal symptoms, such as abdominal bloating, chronic diarrhea, weight loss and failure to thrive. While adults can have digestive symptoms, too, those symptoms are seen somewhat less frequently. In adults, reactions to gluten more often include anemia, arthritis and osteoporosis, among a long list of others.

Celiac Disease and Gluten Sensitivity

The European Society of Paediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition recently revised the definition of celiac disease to recognize that it is an immune-mediated systemic disorder, which can affect more than just the gastrointestinal system. Symptoms associated with the disease can reach far beyond the digestive tract.

The incidence of celiac disease has increased fourfold in the past 50 years. Researchers are uncertain as to why this is the case, although the prevailing theory is that the reduced exposure of the intestines to environmental antigens during the first few months of life may contribute to a deranged development of the intestinal immune system that favors the subsequent loss of tolerance to gluten.

To get the comprehensive CELIAC DISEASE AND GLUTEN SENSITIVITY Special Report, click here.

 For more information on Celiac Diesase, you may want to read through our "Easy to Understand Answers about Celiac Diesase".

Comments (1)

If blood work is positive and colon biopsy is neg. do you have celiac??

Posted by: Sassie | July 22, 2014 5:36 PM    Report this comment

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