Celiac disease is an immune reaction to eating gluten, a protein found in wheat, barley and rye. If you have celiac disease, eating gluten triggers an immune response in your small intestine. Over time, this reaction produces inflammation that damages the small intestine’s lining and prevents absorption of some nutrients.
When the body’s immune system overreacts to gluten in food, the immune reaction damages the tiny, hair-like projections (villi) that line the small intestine. Villi absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients from the food you eat. The damage resulting from celiac disease makes the inner surface of the small intestine appear more like a tile floor. As a result your body is unable to absorb nutrients necessary for health and growth.
The signs and symptoms of celiac disease can vary greatly.
Although the classic signs are diarrhea and weight loss, most people with celiac disease experience few or no digestive signs or symptoms.
In addition to digestive problems, other signs and symptoms of celiac disease include:
- Anemia, usually resulting from iron deficiency
- Loss of bone density or softening of bone
- Itchy, blistery skin rash
- Damage to dental enamel
- Headaches and fatigue
- Nervous system injury, including numbness and tingling in the feet and hands, and possible problems with balance
- Joint pain
- Reduced functioning of the spleen
- Acid reflux and heartburn
A gluten-free diet is essential, and the only treatment for managing celiac disease
Your doctor may refer you to a dietitian, who can help you plan a healthy gluten-free diet.
Once gluten is removed from the diet, inflammation in the small intestine generally begins to lessen. Complete healing and regrowth of the villi may take several months to several years.
If your nutritional deficiencies are severe, your doctor or dietitian may recommend taking vitamin and mineral supplements. You may need to supplement your levels of:
- Vitamin B-12
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin K
Fortunately for bread and pasta lovers with celiac disease, an increasing number of gluten-free products are available. If you can’t find any at your local bakery or grocery store, check online. There are gluten-free substitutes for many gluten-containing foods.