What is Celiac Disease? Signs, Symptoms & What to do if You Think You’re Affected

Dr. Josh Axe Contributes to Vitacost Blog | Vitacost.com/blog

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May is Celiac Disease Awareness Month, which originated to help draw attention to the condition and to generate support for research for treatments and a cure. 

The Celiac Disease Foundation estimates that about 1 in 100 people worldwide has celiac disease. Most research also suggests that many more people than this actually have this disease but don’t realize it, instead attributing their symptoms to other common health problems — like autoimmune conditions, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), iron-deficiency anemia, food allergies or thyroid disorders.

Cutting Board With Various Grains Spelling Out Gluten-Free to Represent Question of What is Celiac Disease | Vitacost.com/blog

While gluten doesn’t cause problems for all people, it can act like a toxin to some when ingested, damaging the lining of the gut, binding essential minerals and making them unavailable to the body, and inhibiting digestion and absorption of nutrients.

What is celiac disease?

Celiac disease is an allergy to the protein gluten and a serious autoimmune disease. Gluten is a protein found in wheat, rye and barley grains. When someone with celiac disease eats gluten, even in trace amounts, this causes damage in their small intestine, an allergic autoimmune reaction, and a number of symptoms as a result.

It’s also possible to have “gluten intolerance” without having celiac disease, which is a less serious condition that even people who are not clinically allergic to gluten can have. This is also sometimes called non-celiac gluten sensitivity (NCGS) and is believed to be much more common than true celiac disease.

Signs and symptoms of celiac disease:

How would someone know if they potentially have celiac disease?

Because celiac disease causes dysfunction of the immune system and digestive system, it can cause dozens of different symptoms that are capable of affecting just about every part of the body. The inflammatory reactions caused by this type of severe gluten allergy can cause problems within the gut microbiome, brain, endocrine system, stomach, liver, blood vessels, skin, joints and muscle tissue. 

Not every person will experience the same reactions due to having a gluten allergy, and some will hardly have any noticeable symptoms at all.

Some of the most common signs and symptoms of celiac disease include:

  • bloating, cramping and abdominal pain
  • diarrhea or constipation
  • trouble concentrating or “brain fog“
  • changes in weight
  • sleep disturbances including insomnia
  • chronic fatigue or lethargy
  • chronic headaches
  • joint or bone pains
  • changes in mood, such an anxiety
  • tingling numbness in the hands and feet
  • irregular periods, infertility or recurrent miscarriage
  • canker soresinside the mouth
  • thinning hair and dull skin
  • dental problems like teeth having pits, grooves, discoloration or malformation
  • in children, stunted growth or failure to thrive

If celiac disease is not treated, and gluten is not avoided, this can lead to additional symptoms and sometimes serious complications. For example, this increases the risk for deficiencies in certain nutrients, other autoimmune disorders, fertility problems, diabetes, anemia, seizures, coronary artery disease, and small bowel cancers.

One reason why many of these symptoms occur is due to malabsorption of essential nutrients.  With celiac disease, tiny structures called villi that line the small intestine become damaged, which interferes with their ability to properly absorb vitamins, minerals and other nutrients that are essential for health.

What to do if you think you might be affected

 First, figure out if you are at risk for having celiac disease, and rule out other health problems that may be the real cause of your symptoms. Do any of these risk factors apply to you?

  • You have a family history of celiac disease/gluten allergies. This disease runs in families and some research shows that people with a close relative who has celiac disease have about a 1 in 10 chance of developing it themselves.
  • You have another autoimmune disorders or diabetes.
  • You’re displaying symptoms associated with high levels of inflammation, while get worse when you consume gluten, and may also get worse when you’re under a lot of stress.

If you suspect you have celiac disease you should visit your doctor right away for testing to confirm. You may also consider having nutrient levels tested and testing for leaky gut syndrome in order to determine how severe your condition has become.

At this time, the only treatment for celiac disease is lifelong adherence to a strict gluten-free diet, which means avoiding all foods made with wheat, rye, barley, and flours made from these grains. This type of gluten-free diet will mean carefully avoiding foods including:

  • Grains that contain gluten, which are wheat (wheatberries, durum, emmer, semolina, spelt, farina, farro, graham, KAMUT® khorasan wheat and einkorn), rye, barley and triticale
  • Bread, rolls, wraps, flour tortillas, bagels, etc.
  • Other foods made with wheat flour like pasta, cereals, pastries, cookies, muffins, etc.
  • Any food made with bread crumbs
  • Beer
  • Soy sauce, dressings or marinades, malt, syrups, and any condiments made with dextrin or starch
  • Malt (malted barley flour, malted milk and milkshakes, malt extract, malt syrup, malt flavoring, malt vinegar)
  • Most food colorings
  • Most soups
  • Brewer’s Yeast
  • Many canned, frozen and processed foods that contain trace amounts of ingredients made with gluten
  • Modern food-processing techniques can even cause gluten to appear in trace amounts in products containing other “gluten-free grains,” such as corn or gluten-free oats.

There are also many non-food items that can contain gluten and trigger symptoms, such as makeup, toothpastes, lotions, shampoos, supplements, etc. When buying any type of product you put on your skin or in your mouth make sure it’s certified gluten -free first. If you feel unsure about whether or not something contains gluten based on its label and ingredients, it’s best to follow up with the manufacturer or to avoid it all together to be safe.

In addition to eating a gluten-free diet, basically everyone suffering from celiac disease can also benefit from taking supplements to help rebuild their nutrient stores. Some of the most important nutrient levels to build up include iron, calcium, vitamin D, zinc, B6, B12, magnesium and folate. You can talk to your doctor about performing tests to confirm any deficiencies, this way you know which specific types are needed most.