Part of the human body’s digestive system includes the small intestine. This lengthy tube is lined with hair-like projections called villi. Villi help absorb nutrients from the food you eat.
However, the consumption of the protein gluten by people with a condition known as celiac disease damages and even destroys villi, which can result in malnutrition and many other serious complications.
There are many questions about celiac disease, and knowledge and understanding will help you to identify and treat this condition.
Q. Is celiac disease just gluten intolerance?
A. No. Current research suggests gluten intolerance is a condition that may exist when people have symptoms similar to celiac disease without villous atrophy (intestinal damage).
Although gluten intolerance does not destroy villi like celiac disease does, it can have severe symptoms and cause damage to your body.
The medical community recently recognized gluten intolerance as a problematic condition and more research is needed regarding its diagnosis. A gluten-free diet is necessary for proper treatment of celiac disease and gluten intolerance. Always discuss gluten concerns with a specialist to ensure an accurate diagnosis.
Q. What are symptoms of celiac disease?
A. Nearly half of celiac disease patients have no symptoms, and everyone reacts differently. However, there are general signs found in many celiac sufferers, including signs of nutrient deficiencies.
Some of these symptoms are:
- Abdominal discomfort
- Fatty or oily bowel movements that may be gray in color
- Stunted growth in children
- Weight loss
It’s best to contact your primary health care provider if you consistently notice these symptoms. Even if celiac disease is not the cause, these symptoms may be a sign of a different underlying condition.
Q. Are some people at a greater risk for celiac disease?
A. Yes. Anyone can develop celiac disease, but some people are more susceptible to it.
People at a greater risk include those who have:
- Autoimmune thyroid disease
- Down syndrome
- Microscopic colitis (colon inflammation that causes persistent watery diarrhea)
Type 1 diabetes
Q. How do you treat celiac disease?
A. The only current way to effectively treat celiac disease is by eliminating gluten from your diet. This will alleviate symptoms and restore intestinal health – meaning new villi.
You may need to work with a dietitian to help you identify foods that contain gluten.
Q. I hear a lot about gluten-free diets – are they healthy for everyone?
A. If you do not have celiac disease, gluten intolerance or dermatitis herpetiformis (a blistering skin disease resulting from gluten intolerance), a gluten-free diet is not necessary and may actually nutritionally compromise your diet.
Q. What are complications associated with celiac disease?
A. If you fail to treat celiac disease, there are potentially serious complications, including:
- Malnutrition. Celiac disease reduces your villi’s effectiveness when it comes to nutrient absorption. This often leads to malnutrition, even if you are eating a healthy diet.
- Cancer. People who leave their celiac disease untreated have a greater risk of some forms of cancer.
- Lactose intolerance. As celiac disease inflicts more damage on your small intestine, you may experience irritation from other non-gluten foods that contain lactose, such as dairy products.
Celiac disease has continued to garner attention from the medical community and general public in recent years as experts learn more about it. In fact, according to the National Digestive Diseases Information Clearinghouse, celiac disease is now recognized as a common genetic disorder that affects about 1 in 133 people.
Fortunately for those with concerns about celiac disease, increasing your understanding and knowledge of the disorder can help you better identify and treat it. And with celiac disease under control, you’ll live a happier, healthier life.
Grace Fjeldberg is a Mayo Clinic Health System registered dietitian. For more information, please go to mayoclinichealthsystem.org.