The midsection of a woman is shown. In one hand, she is holding a bunch of wheat. The other hand is over her stomach indicating that she has celiac disease.

Understanding Celiac Disease and the Gluten Free Diet

What is celiac disease? 

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder triggered by consuming gluten. When a person with celiac disease eats gluten, their immune system reacts by attacking the small intestine, damaging the villi there. When the villi in the small intestine are damaged, our bodies cannot absorb nutrients from food as they should. This can lead to malnutrition and many other health problems as well. 

What causes celiac disease? 

No one fully understands the exact cause of celiac disease, but most experts agree that it is a combination of genetic and environmental factors. People with celiac disease almost always have a genetic marker for it, meaning that it can run in families. But not everyone who has the gene will develop celiac disease. 

Autoimmune diseases can lead to the development of other autoimmune diseases. So people with another autoimmune disease could also develop celiac as a result. And some research suggests that if a person who is predisposed to celiac is exposed to viruses and bacteria, this could trigger the immune response that attacks the villi in the small intestine. 

Researchers are still studying the disease, and hoping to find more evidence that would explain the causes of celiac more fully. 

Celiac Disease Symptoms 

The symptoms of celiac disease vary widely from person to person, and there are over 250 known symptoms associated with celiac. These factors make it difficult to diagnose celiac sometimes, as some symptoms may come and go as well. 

Some common symptoms of celiac disease include: 

  • Bloating 
  • Weight loss 
  • Diarrhea
  • Brain fog
  • Headache/migraine
  • Anemia 
  • Itchy skin rash 
  • Mouth ulcers  
  • Delayed growth in children 

Celiac disease may cause other health problems as well, such as nerve damage, infertility, and liver disease. It’s incredibly important to consult your healthcare provider if you think you may have celiac. 

Celiac vs. Gluten Intolerance 

Because gluten is a trigger in both celiac disease and gluten intolerance, the two are often confused for each other. While celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder, gluten intolerance has nothing to do with the immune system. Having a gluten intolerance means that the body cannot digest gluten, and the digestive symptoms happen as a reaction to gluten. 

Those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) experience a relief of their symptoms when gluten is taken out of their diet. And, unlike celiac disease, NCGS does not cause damage to the small intestine, and it does not increase the risk of other health problems. 

Celiac Disease Diet

Because gluten causes the immune response that damages the small intestine, those with celiac must avoid eating gluten. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, barley, and rye, so it is found in many breads and pastas. But you may be surprised how many food items contain gluten. Many processed foods like canned soup, lunch meat, sauces, and beer all contain gluten. 

It is important to avoid food that has gluten, and to know how to find hidden gluten on labels. For some tips on finding hidden gluten, read our blog 

It is also important for those with celiac disease to ensure they are getting all of the nutrients their bodies need for good health. This could mean taking supplements and following a well-balanced diet plan that includes a variety of fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products. 

Celiac disease can affect people of any age, race, or gender, and it is important to treat it to avoid further health conditions. If you are experiencing symptoms related to celiac disease and have a family history of it, it is important to consult your healthcare provider about being tested. An early diagnosis and treatment can help to prevent long-term health conditions.