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What is Celiac disease?

February 19, 2014

What is Celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder of the small intestine that occurs in people who are genetically predisposed, as there is a tendency for it to occur in several members of the same family; it can occur at any age, from late infancy on. A myriad of symptoms can include pain and discomfort in the digestive tract- both chronic constipation and diarrhea, and it can also be seen as failure to thrive in children. These symptoms may be absent, and symptoms such as joint pain, headaches, skin conditions and fatigue may also be present. The surface of the small intestine, which normally absorbs the nutrients, is damaged by gluten.

1 in 133 persons are affected by Celiac disease. [1]

What is Gluten?

Gluten is essentially a sticky protein found most commonly in wheat, barley, and rye. It can also be found in other grains like spelt, graham, kamut, and semolina. Gluten is what holds everything together, so it is what makes breads, cakes, cookies, and bagels “chewy” airy and prevents them from crumbling. It is found in many cereals and sauces as well as other processed and packaged foods. Because of its protein properties, it is also used in many veggie ‘meat’ substitutes too.

The Gliadin in the gluten protein is the substance that people are sensitive to.  When people are unable to fully digest the gliadin, accumulations of glutamine occurs and this causes atrophy of the villi in the small intestine, reducing the absorptive surface.

When the body is unable to absorb nutrients through the small intestine, deficiencies occur… protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals are not absorbed properly, and these are necessary for good health.

There is no traditional cure for Celiac disease… it is treated, controlled and kept from causing further damage by eating a strictly gluten free diet. Left untreated, Celiac disease can lead to an increased risk of both small intestinal cancer and lymphoma of the small bowel. This risk returns to baseline following a gluten free diet after a period of time, it takes at least 6 months for the small intestine to start to heal.

Celiac Disease
Photo courtesy of Dempsters Gluten Zero

How do they diagnose Celiac disease?

One of the first tests that are done is blood screening; even if the results are positive, it is recommended that the endoscopy [biopsy] is also done to confirm the findings.  If the result is negative, the endoscopy will confirm any false negatives during the blood screening. However, neither test will be accurate if you have already begun a gluten free diet.


[1] Celiac Central, Disease Facts & Figures National Foundation for Celiac Awareness: Celiac. n.d.


Whaley and Wong: Essentials of Pediatric Nursing, (C.V.Mosby Co, 1982) pgs: 541-544

Infographic: Gluten-Free: Food trend or medical must? Maggie Wirtanen, July 20, 2012 http://www.chef2chef.net/infographics/gluten-free.html

Mayo Clinic, Celiac Disease, Mayo Clinic Staff


*Disclosure – although I have been compensated to write this post, all opinions stated are my own.

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  1. This is a great breakdown. One of my friends has Celiac, and it frustrates her to no end when people confuse it with a gluten “sensitivity”.

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