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What is Celiac Disease?

By Marc Courtiol

Celiac disease is an autoimmune disease of the small intestine causing weight loss, vomiting, chronic diarrhea or constipation with pale, bad-smelling stool, abdominal pain and bloating, lack of growth in children and fatigue. However, the disease may be present with little or few symptoms. Sufferers of celiac disease often present with mouth ulcers and have lactose intolerance due to the damage to the bowel lining. The fact that the symptoms are somewhat similar to Crohn’s disease and Irritable Bowel Syndrome makes it harder to diagnose.

The symptoms of adult sufferers may differ from that of children. Children need nutrients for growth and development as well as health, so they may be of short stature or grow slowly and have delayed puberty. They may have problems with their tooth enamel.

Adult onset celiac disease may cause such symptoms as joint or bone pain, arthritis, depression/anxiety, seizures, tingling in the extremities, osteoporosis, miscarriage or infertility, missed periods or dermatitis herpetiformis, an itchy skin rash. It is also possible to have celiac disease with few symptoms, but over the long-term other unexplained diseases such as liver disease or colon cancers that are caused by it, crop up.

Since celiac disease is due to an allergy to the protein in wheat, rye and barley, the only way it can be managed is through a gluten-free diet. While this sounds simple, those wishing to eliminate all gluten from their diet have found it rather more difficult than it would first seem due to the fact that gluten can be found in various medicines, in vitamin supplements and other products such as lip balm. This means they have to be careful whenever they need to consume a new product – one that may or may not contain gluten.

Whenever gluten is consumed, the immune system attacks the tiny villi that line the small intestine. These tiny protrusions are necessary for absorbing nutrients from the food we eat. When villi are destroyed then the person will become thin and malnourished in spite of eating plenty of good food. The sufferer is then prone to many diseases caused by lack of nutrition.
So the disease affects the absorptive action of the small intestine, thus causing loss of nutrition; the reason why children who have it fail to thrive and grow. It may also cause anemia and weak bones due to loss of bone mineral. This anemia can be iron-deficiency anemia or megaloblastic anemia caused from lack of folic acid and vitamin B12.

Celiac disease is really a two-fold disease. There is firstly the allergic reaction to gluten in the diet causing damage to the villi, and then there is the malabsorption of nutrients that this causes. The disease is known to be genetic, but may not present with symptoms until certain factors that put stress on the body are present. These can include severe emotional stress or physical stress such as pregnancy and childbirth, surgery, or a viral infection.

Interestingly, studies have shown that breast milk offers some protection against this inherited disease. When babies are breastfed for a longer period, if they have celiac disease it does not show up until later in life.

Celiac disease also has other names such as gluten-sensitive enteropathy, nontropical sprue, or celiac sprue.

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