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Celiac Disease

What is Celiac Disease?

Celiac disease (CD) is a chronic (long-term) digestive disease in which patients have inflammation or irritation in the small intestine. This causes difficulties with absorbing nutrients from the diet. Patients with CD often have other family members with the condition. Inflammation in the bowel occurs when a patient with CD eats food that contains gluten.


Gluten is a certain type of proteins found in wheat, barley, rye and related grains. Oats are currently considered not to be toxic to persons with CD. However, due to the high possibility of contamination with other gluten containing grains, oats are typically not recommended for people with celiac disease. When food containing the gluten protein arrives in the small bowel, the immune system reacts against the gluten, causing an inflammatory reaction in the wall of the bowel. The small intestine lining is covered by millions of villi (see picture), which act to increase the surface area of the intestine allowing improved absorption of food. The villi or finger like projections of the small intestine are temporarily damaged by the inflammation in CD, which decreases absorption of food. When gluten is removed from the diet inflammation is reduced and the intestine begins to heal. The time when a patient develops symptoms after their first contact with the gluten protein varies from patient to patient.

How common is Celiac Disease?

Approximately 1 out of every 250 people may have CD though only 1 out of 10 people with celiac disease may be actually diagnosed and are aware that they have this disease. Some of these patients have mild forms of the disease and may have no symptoms or only mild symptoms. There may be as many as 1 million people in the United States and 3-5 million in the world with CD.

What are the symptoms of Celiac Disease?

The symptoms or signs of disease will depend on how much the intestine is inflamed. Some people have mild inflammation with few symptoms. Even though they may feel quite well there is still damage occurring to the lining of the bowel. Other people have more severe inflammation, which causes symptoms that may be severe enough to lead them to visit their doctor. Occasionally individuals will not have any symptoms even though their small intestine is severely inflamed. The most common symptoms are abdominal pains, bloating and gas, diarrhea, stools that may float or smell very bad, weight loss, poor growth or weight loss in children, and anemia (low blood count). Other symptoms are feeling weak, tiredness, low vitamin levels (especially iron, calcium and folate), bone and joint pains, osteoporosis (thinning of the bones), and a skin rash that lasts. Someone with celiac disease may have a variety of the above symptoms and different people with celiac disease may have completely different symptoms.

How is Celiac Disease diagnosed?

It is important to remember that most patients with abdominal pain, bloating or diarrhea do not have celiac disease. After reviewing your symptoms and a physical exam, your doctor may order blood tests and/or an endoscopy. All tests for celiac disease must be done while the patient is on a normal diet that contains gluten. Patients who are concerned that they may have celiac disease should probably not restrict their diet prior to seeking medical evaluation because this may cause false test results but they should seek prompt medical testing.

Blood tests

Specific antibody blood tests are used to diagnose patients with CD. These blood tests are also used to test people who may be at risk for having CD but have no symptoms (relatives of patients with CD). The 2 most used blood tests look to see if your body has made an immune response to gluten. Other tests for allergies will not detect celiac disease. Tests on saliva or stool for antibodies are not good substitutes for the blood-based tests.


Establishing a firm diagnosis of CD requires taking biopsy samples of the small bowel using endoscopy. Endoscopy involves insertion of a thin flexible tube with a camera through the mouth into the stomach and small bowel. Samples are taken from the wall of the small bowel and are examined under a microscope for changes of CD. This test is usually performed under sedation.

How is Celiac disease treated?

Celiac disease is treated by avoiding all foods that contain gluten. Gluten is what causes inflammation in the small bowel. When this is removed from the diet, the bowel will heal and return to normal. Medications are not normally required to treat CD except in occasional patients who do not respond to a gluten free diet.

The following grains contain Gluten and are NOT ALLOWED IN ANY FORM:

  • Wheat, rye, barley, kamut, einkorn, spelt and triticale

Frequently overlooked foods that often contain gluten:

  • Breading

  • Imitation bacon

  • Broth

  • Imitation seafood

  • Coating mixes

  • Marinades

  • Communion wafers

  • Processed meats

  • Croutons

  • Sauces

  • Pastas

  • Stuffings

Getting used to the gluten-free diet requires some lifestyle changes. The key to understanding the gluten-free diet is to become a good ingredient label reader. If a food has questionable ingredients avoid it and find a similar product that you know is gluten-free. Foods containing the following ingredients are questionable and should not be consumed unless it is verified that they do not contain or are not derived from prohibited grains; these products are:

  • Modified food starch

  • Hydrolyzed vegetable protein (HVP)

  • Hydrolyzed plant protein (HPP)

  • Malt vinegar

  • Soy sauce or soy sauce solids

  • Brown rice syrup

  • Dextrin

  • Textured vegetable protein (TVP)

  • Vegetable gum

Be aware that medications may contain gluten ingredients. Gluten containing fillers may be in both prescription and over the counter medications. It is essential to ensure that any medications being taken are gluten free.


Foods that are ALLOWED include

  • Rice, corn, soy, potato, tapioca, bean, sorghum, quinoa, millet, buckwheat, tef and nut flours

How long do you remain on the gluten-free diet?

Once a diagnosis of CD is established, these individuals need to remain on the gluten-free diet for the rest of their lives. While this may be difficult at first, patients usually adapt quite well over time.

Is there any other way of treating Celiac Disease?

No. There is no other treatment currently available. All patients with CD must remain on a strict gluten-free diet. Medications are not normally required. Supplemental vitamins, calcium and magnesium may sometimes be recommended but patients are advised to check with their physician about these supplements. Rarely steroids or other drugs are used to suppress the immune system but only in the most severe of cases.

What will happen if you don't adhere to the gluten-free diet?

Patients with CD who do not adhere to the gluten-free diet usually continue to suffer from symptoms such as abdominal pain, bloating, gas and diarrhea. In addition, these patients are at higher risk for developing complications of CD such as cancer of the small bowel and narrowings in the bowel due to inflammation.

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